Miss Manners: Good companionship is not a competitive sport

DEAR MISS MANNERS: It would seem my soft-spoken and polite nature attracts big personalities with a desperate need for a sidekick. I can play the background character well, out of mannerly consideration for what seems to be a desire for affirmation.

Lately, however, I’m a bit exasperated with all this nonsense. Why shouldn’t a fairly attractive, well-educated and well-spoken woman such as myself also take center stage occasionally?

I’m not sure why this is a surprise to my extroverted friends. It’s as if they’ve been struck by lightning when I “show up” for the party. I even detect passive-aggressive levels of jealous hostility and competitive behavior at times.

I’m wondering where I am missing it when vetting these types of friendships from the beginning. How do I assert my right to appear fully, in my own life, for these people who just want a shadow of me to clap for them?

GENTLE READER: The current zeitgeist calls this Main Character Energy. Miss Manners calls it narcissism. Taking advantage of a good and polite listener is not a sign of friendship, especially if occasionally asserting yourself is perceived as threatening.

Good companionship is not a competitive sport. One seeks to find intimates who are willing to share the attention and at least feign equal interest in the other person’s life. The give and take should be roughly equal.

How to avoid this type of behavior in the first place? The Maya Angelou quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time” comes to mind.

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DEAR MISS MANNERS: My husband and I have been unable to come up with an appropriate substitute for a general letter heading.

In the past, “Dear Sirs” was often used, or “Dear Sirs/Madams,” but this is not gender-neutral. “To whom it may concern” sounds very pompous to our ears. Some websites have suggested “Dear Persons,” but that doesn’t sound correct to us.

Can Miss Manners offer a substitute?

GENTLE READER: “Dear Sir” was a general heading only when everyone in business was assumed to be male; it adapted once by offering the alternative “Dear Madam,” which appears to have pleased exactly no one.

Miss Manners is therefore now prepared to accept “Dear Customer Service Representative,” “Dear [Company]” and similar substitutions -- if not “Hey You” or “Pay Attention!”

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DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am part of a social group of nine people who meet monthly for lovely luncheons at local restaurants. I often order garlic bread as my appetizer, while others enjoy soup or salad as theirs.

Inevitably, someone always asks me to “pass the breadbasket,” assuming it is an offering of the restaurant, whereupon I sheepishly answer, “You are welcome to enjoy a piece, but it is my appetizer.” I am often left breadless.

Is there a kind yet clear way to communicate that this is MY appetizer without sounding impolite?

GENTLE READER: “It’s good, isn’t it? I actually ordered this as my appetizer, but let’s get another one for the table.”

Miss Manners | Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin

Miss Manners, written by Judith Martin and her two perfect children, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Marin, has chronicled the continuous rise and fall of American manners since 1978. Send your questions to