Dear Miss Manners: At an art gallery opening for a friend, I saw a distant acquaintance from across the room, someone I would usually have acknowledged and chatted with. However, this person looked as though she had been extremely ill, so much so that I barely recognized her.

She saw me and glanced away, as though she didn't recognize me.I felt as though I should have acknowledged her, but the usual phrases that came to mind, such as "How are you?" or "How have you been?" seemed intrusive and inappropriate.

I am afraid I took the coward's way out and said nothing. I didn't see this person again during the evening. I feel I handled this situation poorly.

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners hates telling people that they did something awful and hurtful that they didn't intend and that it is too late to correct. What she would really like to do is assure you that it really wasn't your acquaintance you saw at the art gallery; it was a stranger, which is why she looked away from you.

Nevertheless, for the sake of the etiquette lesson you requested, let us assume that it was the lady you know. You inadvertently showed her that you found her so changed for the worse as to be almost unrecognizable. That was bad enough, although she knows that she is changed. But then you turned away from her, as if you no longer recognized her as a human being.

Miss Manners does not admit the excuse that it would be intrusive to offer conventional greetings because they include an inquiry about one's state of health. Most people can tell the difference between a greeting and a medical examination. The lady would have had a choice between giving the conventional answer of "fine," which is not meant literally, or saying briefly that she had been ill but was feeling better, thank you.

The likelihood of her attending gallery openings while at death's door is small - it is hard to imagine that anyone wishes her last meal to be cheap wine and cheese. Rather, she was attempting a return to normal life, and Miss Manners hopes that next time you will go along with that. She is well aware that your reaction was inadvertent but reminds you that etiquette requires mastering one's natural reactions when they would be inconsiderate.

Dear Miss Manners: I work as an assistant for a large group of people. Last year for Secretaries Day, I was first asked to order my own gift using the company credit card (which could not be done as this is against corporate policy) and then overheard the other employees complaining about chipping in a few dollars for my gift.

I have never been comfortable with the tradition of awarding the secretary with a plant or lunch for just doing his or her job and do not require this type of reward, especially when it is given ungraciously. How do I let people know, without offending them as I was offended last year, that a gift is not wanted this year?

Gentle Reader: How do you let these offensive people know that you don't want their offensive gift, without offending them?

Miss Manners is putting that question in her Too Hard basket. To refuse a present is an insult.

However, she will suggest a possibility that is more within your area of expertise. Isn't it true that there are circumstances under which a secretary can politely refuse to take on another activity?

You could politely decline a luncheon invitation on the grounds of having more pressing work to do. And you could accept a plant on behalf of the office, rather than for yourself, placing it at some distance from your desk for everyone to enjoy - and request that someone who knows how to take care of plants take on that job.

Dear Miss Manners: I am sure that you have been deluged with protests and comments about your statement that "showers are informal, inconsequential events and should involve only token presents."

Pardon me, Miss Manners, but you are way out of touch with present day reality! I have never met anyone giving a shower (bridal or baby) who considered her expense, time, planning and worry "inconsequential." To rent halls and hire catering companies and then expect token gifts is ridiculous.

Even way back when house showers were popular, no one ever brought a "token gift." Talk about being impolite! I asked co-workers, friends, neighbors and relatives how they felt about your statement and they cracked up.

Gentle Reader: Really? Miss Manners is always glad to provide amusement. But showers are indeed supposed to be informal gatherings of close friends, not major productions. And "cracked" is a word she would save for those who expect - or feel bludgeoned into giving - double and even triple loads of serious presents for each wedding.

Notice that Miss Manners speaks of what should be. It is her mission in life to tell people what is proper, not to spread word of those etiquette violations you call reality.