Q. I am recovering in hospital from a serious car accident in which – among other things – I cracked my spine. I have been overwhelmed by the messages of sympathy and concern from friends, colleagues and acquaintances alike. However, one couple, whom I had long regarded as ‘friends’, have not so much as murmured, although they were among the first to learn of the bad news (my wife was also injured to a lesser extent). I am afraid, despite almost 20 years’ friendship, that my attitude towards them will never be the same. How should I play this in future?
A. After 20 years of friendship you should be able to judge whether the couple are so egotistical that it has not occurred to them to sympathise. You might also be aware of whether they have always disapproved of your driving – indeed, they may feel they have narrowly escaped death at your hands on many occasions. There is another possibility: they have secretly undergone a worse trauma of their own – perhaps a diagnosis of terminal illness – and are avoiding contact so as not to distress you further.
You would do best to assume the third explanation, and coax them kindly to tell you the details of the misfortune which has clearly befallen them. You will thereby either trigger a confession of guilt for their lack of consideration, or you will learn the true facts of their own misfortune and be able to sympathise with them.
Q. I had what could be described as a lower-middle-class upbringing in the north of England. Nowadays, in part due to my work, I find myself socialising in increasingly upper-class circles, and it is becoming more and more necessary to try to disguise my background. Do you have any suggestions on how I might do this convincingly? In particular, do you know of any courses that would bring me up to speed on social etiquette?
Name withheld, London
A. There is no way in which you can disguise your true origins, since the upper classes are constantly redefining social etiquette to outwit interlopers. (To give a current trend as an example, ‘Who would like some coffee?’ has been replaced by ‘Who would like a coff-ay?’)
However, the most efficient crash course in how to blend quietly into their world can be gained through domestic service in an upper-class household. Sign up with an employment agency which supplies general help for two-week stints in fishing lodges and the like, and spend your next holiday working there. Choose your employer carefully to ensure that you are not billeted with a rock squire or Russian mafia boss. You will never be able to pass yourself off as upper-class but you will learn how not to ‘jar’. By using this method you would be taking a tip from Prince William, who learnt the same procedure in reverse by serving in a lower-middle-class household during his gap year.
Q. People have been coming to stay all summer and leaving behind clothing and other possessions which need to be posted back to them. What sort of packaging would you recommend, Mary? Padded envelopes come in all sizes, but I worry about them bursting open even when stapled and taped shut.
A.W., Polzeath, Cornwall
A. Save a fortune on packaging materials by using an old plastic shopping bag turned inside out and sealed shut with a leg from an old pair of tights. Do not waste money on padded envelopes, and stick the stamps on to a peel-off label. The resultant bundle will make its distinctive presence felt.