Advice Columns

Miss Manners: It’s OK to pick up the mail, but not to snoop

Q: I enter the small waiting room of a professional whom I visit for professional services. As I open the door, its lower edge disturbs mail that is lying on the floor, having been delivered through a slot. I gently shift the mail with my foot to save it from being mangled by the door, and take a seat.

Would it be impolite (an intrusion) to gather the mail and put it on the nearby small shelf? Is it impolite (negligent of an ordinary courtesy) to leave the slightly mussed mail on the floor?

A: Yes, to your second quandary. It is not, as implied in your first, impolite to touch someone else’s mail.

Touching, Miss Manners hastens to add, does not include shaking it and listening for the result, holding it up to a strong light source or sniffing it. Leaving someone else’s possession in a place where it is likely to come to harm (such as the floor of a busy waiting room) is impolite, as is placing it somewhere where it will become lost (such as on a shelf intended for medical samples) or not readily visible.

Touching something with your shoe, gently or otherwise, is not always a show of disrespect (Miss Manners is thinking now of soccer), but she cannot think of any situation in which it displays respect.

Pick up the letters and give them to the next resident professional with whom you come into contact. Innocent as was the way in which you acquired the letters, it will still be best to explain the circumstances rather than leave the owner to jump to the wrong conclusion.

Q: I work for a company of approximately 400 people and was tasked with collecting a signed policy from all of these people. When I sent the form out via email, I started the title with the word “Mandatory” and gave everyone a deadline over three weeks away.

The deadline arrived, and I had received only about 275 responses. When I sent out a reminder (about one month after the original notice), I titled it “Mandatory Still Means You Have To.” In the text of the message I said, “While hundreds of our employees did this, I haven’t received yours yet.”

Did I cross any etiquette lines with this wording? (For what it’s worth, I got about 75 percent of the late people to respond.)

A: You did cross a line, but not the one you think.

Business etiquette allows a more direct approach than is permissible in the private sphere. But your attempt to cajole lightly was unbusinesslike. It was also unnecessary and likely counterproductive, as emails are notorious at not conveying tone: For every employee who took the subject line of your follow-up email as light humor, there will be another who took it as offensive sarcasm.

Give employees an initial deadline, send them reminders, and, if all else fails, call in higher authority. Miss Manners will forgive you if your email is addressed only to the guilty individual — and therefore suggests, without saying, that he or she is alone in transgressing.

Judith Martin writes the Miss Manners column with help from her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website,; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.


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