Q. At a recent party I was delighted to find my hosts had put me next to one of their most high-profile guests. We had never met before but they knew how much I had to say to this excellent woman. I was consequently dismayed when she failed to — or rather, was unable to — turn. Her first interlocutor, a somewhat physically overbearing character, talked to her with almost pathological intensity throughout all the courses. The dinner came to an end and she and I had been unable to exchange one word. We had been 20 tables of ten. Had one of our hosts been at our table he or she would have slapped the offender down, but neither could see what was going on. Fortunately the old friend on my right was able to include me in a three-way conversation but that was not the point. How, without being uncivil like my rival, could I have prised this fascinating woman away from him?
— H.T., London SW1
A. The high-profile woman is partly to blame. She could have suddenly cried: ‘How absolutely fascinating! You must tell my neighbour!’ and pushed her chair back to allow a brief interchange and break the conversational stranglehold. Since she failed to do this, you had no option but to place your hand on her thigh — perhaps using a napkin as a buffer. When she whirled around you could have said pleasantly: ‘Sorry. This was the only way I could think of getting your attention.’
Q. My friend, a respectable married woman, started talking about the girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend of mine who is basically a shit and a womaniser. She clearly had no idea I even knew this man. Naturally, I was curious about the somewhat private information she was passing on so I said nothing about my seven-year affair with him. Now I feel my behaviour was a bit creepy. Mary — should I go on holding my tongue about this to my innocent friend? I am tempted to stay silent as she may reveal even more.
— E.S., Sussex
A. It will not be creepy to admit your earlier failure to disclose. Reassure your friend (and mean it) that the information will go no further. However, since you are in a unique position to interpret and advise, she should continue to leak the revelations.
Q. Mary, I have started to see a member of the upper classes and cannot find this question answered anywhere. Is knocking on doors common?
— Name and address withheld
A. Knocking suggests you do not feel fully at home, which is a subtle insult. With a downstairs door, shout ‘Hello!’ first and walk in. But knock and wait to be summoned into bedrooms and bathrooms. Another caution: never give a polite little warning cough before coming into a room.