Life Advice



Sorry Everyone Keeps Taking 'Sorry' Literally

Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin on

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a reasonably empathetic person. I'm not a sob sister, but I do feel true sympathy for other people's misfortunes. But I have reached my limit.

If someone tells me that a family member has died, and I respond with an I'm sorry, the rejoinder is often, Not your fault. If a friend mentions her recently broken bone, her divorce, her speeding ticket or broken fingernail, I obviously say that I am sorry. Again, the response is, Not your fault.

I agree that I was not the cause of any of the aforementioned disasters; I was not indicating my guilt. I am certainly old enough to say You have my sympathy, but I am not formal enough to pull it off. I see seems heartless. Imagine! seems cruel. That is so sad sounds sarcastic.

In this age of online trolls, rudeness passing as humor, and constant hate speech by politicos, what does one say to show empathy with a friend's or acquaintance's tale of woe, discomfort or loss? I need an appropriate response or I'm going to start saying huh.

GENTLE READER: Not your fault -- that the objects of your sympathy don't understand the simplest conventional expression, and the need for them to reply graciously.

Miss Manners would suggest I'm sorry to hear that, but those literal-minded folks might respond, Then I guess I shouldn't have told you. How about I'm sorry for your loss? But the response might be that the person didn't get lost, just died.

Oh, well. Just keep remembering that other people's deflecting sympathy is not your fault.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: For a 2 p.m. wedding (party lasting until midnight), the bridesmaids will be wearing burgundy dresses, and the groomsmen will be in blue military uniforms (except the best man, in a tux). The fathers are to wear black tuxes and the mothers of the bride and groom were told to wear long black dresses.

Are the mothers no longer allowed to pick their own dress colors? Is it OK to wear full-length formal dress at 2 p.m.? Is black appropriate for a wedding?


Just trying to understand if this is the new way clothing is handled for a wedding party. I never would have dreamed of telling the mothers what to wear, but this has become a big deal.

GENTLE READER: What has become commonplace is the theatricalization of the wedding. Rather than thinking of it as a tradition that participants follow, it is framed as a show with particular roles to be performed. So costumes are dictated as part of the overall look.

It's too bad that the director of this show wants to make it an occasion for flouting all the normal little social conventions, such as the ones against wearing evening clothes during the day and wearing black dresses at a wedding -- and most of all, against bossing around the mothers, as if they can't be trusted to dress themselves.

Whether you want to obey these dictates depends, Miss Manners supposes, on whether your life will be easier if you placate the dictator.


(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website,; to her email,; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)






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