DEAR MISS MANNERS

Please enlighten me on the art of constructive criticism by informing me about the appropriateness of the remark a man made to his girlfriend about her manner of dress. He commented that he was pleased with her appearance, although he might "accessorize" her more.

Do you find this remark in good taste or, as I do, unnecessarily tactless - especially since my girlfriend, a natural beauty, has become concerned that her simple choice of earrings is not enough.A prominent newscaster informed me once that when one is wearing jewelry, "Less is best." Do you agree?

GENTLE READER - Less personal criticism would certainly be best. As far as Miss Manners can determine, calling criticism "constructive" simply announces to the victim that the critic has a much better idea of how that person should live, and that anyone who doesn't immediately revise his or her life in accordance with the critic's notion is criminally stubborn.

Of course, Miss Manners has no idea of the circumstances in which this gentleman said he would like to see his lady friend wearing more jewelry (if that is what the horrid word "accessorize" was intended to convey). Or how your friend got involved to the extent that she has taken it as criticism of herself. Couldn't you both just let the other couple settle their matters of taste alone?

As for the objective question about jewelry - yes, it is considered bad taste to wear one's entire treasure trove at once. The excellent rule that used to be passed from mother to daughter still holds:

"Put on all the jewelry you think appropriate for an outfit, taking care not to overdo it. Then remove one piece."

DEAR MISS MANNERS - We have gotten ourselves into an escalating spiral of exchanging increasingly expensive gifts with several families of close friends. A lot of care has gone into selecting gifts, with varying success each year.

I know that my budget is not the only one being pinched. One family is facing a layoff of the main breadwinner, and though he should find a position reasonably soon, I know they are watching their cash flow closely. Is there any way to de-escalate this pattern diplomatically? We would enjoy exchanging token gifts to commemorate our joy in their friendship. I think they may feel the same but would never say so.

GENTLE READER - Miss Manners confesses to saving your letter until now, although she received it well before Christmas. It's not that she was running around doing her own shopping, too busy to be bothered, but rather that there was nothing much you could do at the time.

Now there is. After you have expressed full gratitude for this year's extravagant presents, and long before anyone thinks of next year's, is the time to suggest that everyone scale back. Try something along the lines of: "What would you say to putting some sort of limit to next year's gift exchange? It is the thought you put into those wonderful presents that means the most to us, and we could just as well do that - all of us - on a more modest scale."

DEAR MISS MANNERS - My husband and another couple were friends for 25 years, but in the past year their friendship has soured. I need to know what we should do when the wife's father dies. (He has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.)

Seven years ago I entered the picture, after my husband divorced his first wife. My relationship with this couple has never been good, as I have been uncomfortable about my husband's relationship with the wife. She had been calling him a couple of times a week, and we saw them every couple of weeks, usually at their home. There was also an unfortunate incident involving money.

Two years ago they attended my father's funeral and were very kind to me. In turn, we were at the funeral of the husband's father. In fact, my husband was by their side almost constantly in the first week after the death.

I am concerned that my attendance at her father's funeral may make them uncomfortable. Should we both attend, or should my husband go alone? We want to do the right thing.

GENTLE READER - Can Miss Manners trust that your alienation from these people was conducted in a more or less civilized fashion? That the bereaved will not be jolted from their gloom by the very sight of you, and be tempted to stop the proceedings by saying, "Get that woman out of here"?

In that case, it would be a nice gesture to attend the funeral with your husband, as a sign of respect and in gratitude for the way they were kind to you under similar conditions. As estranged friends are not the best ones to offer comfort, you could disappear discreetly after the services.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I recently married a wonderful young woman. We had dated for five years and were very confident in our decision to marry. We are committed to making our marriage work and last.

But people constantly ask me, "How's married life?" Some of them are married, some have never married, and some are divorced. The divorced ones inevitably follow the question with a snide "Just wait." I've been shocked at the amount of anger and pain in their faces as they say this.

It's almost as if the divorced people are putting a curse on us. I realize that statistically their prediction has a 50-50 chance of coming true, but I believe they should be supportive of our marriage despite their own failures.

GENTLE READER: Statistically you may have a good chance of getting killed on the highways, but Miss Manners hardly thinks this would justify people in saying snidely "Happy landings" instead of "Bon voyage" to someone leaving on a trip.

Miss Manners suggests you counter the remarks by saying, "Oh, no, you don't know my wife." A bit of smugness is called for in the delivery.

DEAR MISS MANNERS - People often comment about my shyness by saying things such as "You're so quiet." I never know what to say in this awkward situation. What would be an appropriate response?

GENTLE READER - A silent smile.

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.