People are forever asking Miss Manners what is the perfect present to give. Not to give Miss Manners mind you. To give people whom they know and she doesn't.

Grateful for this tribute to her powers, Miss Manners must nevertheless protest that she lacks the opportunity to assess the needs, wants and tastes of strangers. Aren't those people on your gift list because you know them? And if you don't know what would please them, don't you at least know somebody else - such as their parents, children or roommates - you can ask?If you have no such connections, perhaps the way to take care of that list is with a pair of scissors.

The sad fact is that there is no such thing as the perfect all-purpose present, of a size, color, utility and style to fit the desires of everyone. Even if there were, it would be no good. Did such an object exist, we all would have saved up to go out and get one for ourselves. And then it would no longer be perfect, because we would already have one.

Miss Manners can read your sly thoughts: You think you know exactly what the perfect present is. It's small, rectangular and green, and no matter how much people have, they still want more. Yes, and very useful that stuff is for getting through life. Miss Manners even admits that it is appropriate for part of your gift list - but that is exactly the part that ought never to have been there. Expressions of gratitude toward service people and employees should be made in the form of tips and bonuses, not presents. You are not expected to know enough about their personal lives to be able to figure out what else they would enjoy receiving.

But among relatives and friends, presents are supposed to involve at least some attempt at demonstrating that you noticed what they are like. In other words, thoughtfulness.

Miss Manners knows that many of you are only too willing to relieve everyone of thinking about the matter at all, by dictating exactly what you want to be given. Doing so is nevertheless a mistake. It destroys the admittedly burdensome, but nevertheless rewarding, point of giving and receiving presents, and without that element, the exchange has no excuse at all.

Rather than give money back and forth or agree to do one another's shopping from pre-supplied lists, why don't you just call it even and quits? Or exchange IOUs?

Oh, now, there. Miss Manners understands that it is not only greed but the desire to avoid waste - allowing others to spend time and money on what will not be used or appreciated - that prompts you to attempt to direct others in what to give you. And she has nothing against probings and hints, if they are kept within reasonable bounds.

As a caution against overdoing it, she would like to make the quixotic argument that the oddest presents often end up being the most treasured. People who got nothing for wedding presents except the place settings from the patterns they chose, or a variety of checks that disappeared into their own funds, will never know the pleasure of looking around years later and remembering who gave them what. There is a special ring about saying, "That was a wedding present."

And speaking of rings, nice people understand so thoroughly that the symbolic value of a present outweighs its monetary or aesthetic value that a nice lady wouldn't even want to keep a ring from an alleged gentleman for whom she has no further use. Nor do nice people ban from their aesthetically coordinated homes the lopsided presents their children make them.

They are rather inclined to love the peculiar choices of their endearing friends, out of an emotion that is half amusement and half sentimentality. And if they really can't bear what they get, they thank the donors enthusiastically and go exchange it, donate it to charity or bury it in secret.

They are perfectly safe doing this, because nice people never inquire whatever happened to that present they gave you, and how come they never see it being used.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - Will you please repeat that it is OK to begin eating when one is served, rather than waiting for a full table to be served, with cold plates for those who were served first. When I quote you, people think I am making it up.

GENTLE READER - Miss Manners said it all right, but you must have been under her dinner table at the time. What she said was "Oh, please go ahead and start" to her own guests, as gracious hostesses do when they don't have a footman for every guest.

Gracious guests, however, must unfortunately sit looking as if food were the last thing on their minds until they hear these magic words.

In a dilemma about giving or receiving presents? Help is available in Miss Manners' "Present-Giving" pamphlet. Send $1.50 to Miss Manners, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 91428, Cleveland, OH 44101-3428.