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For the diffident Swiss soldier -- help is at hand

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Help is at hand for the bashful Swiss soldier who wants to be polite.

If he wishes to introduce himself to a certain young lady but can't quite think how to go about it, he may apply to surrogate letter writer Christian Roth of Hagglingen.

Then once he is out on a stroll with his new acquaintance, chances upon a friend, and wants to know the proper presentation, he can turn for guidance to a handy new Defense Ministry booklet.

Actually, Herr Roth's service is available to any man, not just to soldiers. (It's not available to women, since Herr Roth says he cannot properly project the feelings of the fair sex.) Similarly, the Swiss Defense Ministry's booklet of manners for soldiers has proved so popular with the general public that it was sold out at kiosks within days of its appearance.

Whether it's soldier or civilian who takes advantage of the counsel, the phenomenon suggests that some diffidence still survives this ultra-explicit age.

The diffidence in the village of Hagglingen is not only that of suitors who benefit from Herr Roth's letter-writing sensibilities. It's also manifest in Herr Roth himself, who is never in the mood to charge fees for his assistance after he has explored his clients' feelings sufficiently to compose an individualized valentine. He does accept chocolates, pralines, or an occasional gratuity for his ghostwriting. But this ''dreamer and romantic,'' as he calls himself, doesn't bill his customers, not even for the odd poem. He just enjoys his pseudonymous authorship, and depends for his livelihood on his profession as typesetter.

The diffidence of the Swiss Defense Ministry is perhaps more remarkable than Herr Roth's since military institutions are not noted for their devotion to politesse. It is not clear if the ministry was spurred to publish its booklet (''The Two Plus Two of Good Manners'' in the German edition, a more subtle ''24 Hours'' in French) by especially high standards in a neutral Army that has not seen battle in centuries - or by special dearths on the part of raw recruits.


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