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FUSSY RECIPIENT OVERLOOKS SPIRIT OF HOLIDAY MESSAGE

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DEAR MISS MANNERS - We sent a Christmas card to old friends, addressing it "John and Mary Jones." Mary Jones sent back the front of the envelope, marking it "incorrect," and wrote, "Please address us in the correct way - Mr. and Mrs. John Jones."

No one I have asked knows why my form of address elicited such a strongly acerbic response. As a matter of fact, the very day we received the Jones note, my husband and I received a card addressed to "Bill and Jane Smith."Did I make an egregious error, or is this woman being super-fussy?

GENTLE READER - Both. However, when it comes to Christmas mean-spiritedness, there is no contest. She wins.

Miss Manners presumes that you meant well, and indeed many people do not seem to notice or care about being stripped of their titles. But the correct way to address a couple is - well, it's not as easy as it used to be. "Mr. and Mrs. John Jones" is correct, unless you know that Mrs. Jones particularly hates being called Mrs. Jones. In that case, it would be Ms. (or Dr., or Countess, for all Miss Manners cares) Mary Jones/Mr. John Jones" on two lines. But a lady could just as easily hate that and want to be addressed as "Mrs."

There are two overriding rules in all this chaos:

1. Address a person as she wishes to be addressed, if you happen to know what that is; if not, take a wild guess and a leap, and pray that she knows the next rule.

2. Let people know how you wish to be addressed, but don't make an unpleasant scene if they guess wrong.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - Two of us are having a problem dealing with co-workers who consistently interrupt our lunch hour to ask if they can have some of our food. It seems as if they expect us to share our food with them when they are hungry.

We bring our lunch practically every day. We are very aware of the importance of eating right, so our meals are highly nutritious and we fix them accordingly for just two people.

We are not trying to be selfish with our food. It is not as if they cannot afford to buy their own lunch.

We are almost at the point of closing the office door when we eat. We have suggested in small ways that they bring their own food and eat with us, but they say it is too much trouble. We would like to figure out a way of telling our co-workers how we feel without causing a lot of problems.

GENTLE READER - Close the door. Miss Manners sees nothing wrong with having a private lunch, and it will be your only defense until you learn to say no.

The way to do that is to smile and say: "No - this is my only lunch. I'm sorry, I only brought enough for myself. But if you want to organize an office picnic sometime, when we all bring something and share, let me know."

DEAR MISS MANNERS - My problem is with the friends, acquaintances and neighbors who inquire about my Christmas plans or, after Christmas, how I spent the holiday. To some, I simply reply that I am Jewish and don't celebrate Christmas, but that I hope their holiday will be joyful (to which I often get a sympathetic, close-to-pitying look, and, in one instance, actual disbelief).

I feel that it is presumptuous, if not tacky, to assume that everyone else shares one's culture or religious beliefs, even if this season has seemingly evolved into a generic celebration of mindless shopping for some, and deepening debt for others. Nevertheless, I am often at a loss for a response that is both polite and genuine.

GENTLE READER - Miss Manners doubts that such offhand inquiries have anything serious to do with anybody's culture or religion. A serious religious reply from a Christian, for example, would be out of place.

Christmas being a legal holiday, the question is asked much in the way that people say, "How was your weekend?" "Fine, thank you" is the all-purpose answer to such purely ritual questions as this and "How are you?" It is not a lie, because it is not meant to convey anything other than a polite acknowledgment of the question.