Mary Killen

Dear Mary | 7 July 2012

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Q. An old friend invited me to have dinner with him in London. We had just sat down when a couple he knew walked into the restaurant. They were slightly drunk and noisy and very excited to see him and made quite a fuss around our table so other diners started to look over. My friend felt he had no option but to suggest the waiter pull up another table and the couple sit down and join us. Afterwards we both felt sorry we had not been able to chat to each other. How, without seeming unfriendly, could he have tactfully encouraged them to move on?

— A.B., Great Dunmow

A. Etiquette would have decreed that your friend stand up to greet the couple. Did he? Like all courtesies, this one has a practical purpose: it signals respect while discouraging lingering. Meanwhile the way to pre-empt a full scale intrusion of the type you suffered would have been for your friend to ask eagerly at the outset, ‘Will you join us for coffee?’

Q. The other day I was in a wood with three men in a professional capacity, discussing re-planting trees and so forth. I was overtaken by the need to pee but felt I could not mention this without considerable embarrassment — I hardly know two of the men. Various euphemisms went through my head; I recalled on a ranch holiday with my daughter that an American woman on a long ride told the wrangler: ‘Gene, my bladder is bursting!’ But this seemed horribly graphic. The tour of the wood was ruined by my anxiety. What would have been the appropriate phrase?

— E.S., Sussex

A. This scenario calls for neither euphemisms nor graphic Tracey Emin-type descriptions of crouching and urgency. One simply gasps, as though suddenly remembering something, and makes the request: ‘Will you please go ahead of me? I just need a moment of privacy.’ These days everyone assumes this means a private mobile telephone call. With enough distance between you they will be none the wiser.

Q. I am a widow living in New York. When a girlfriend telephones to say she has a spare ticket for the theatre or the opera, I often find it awkward because it is not clear whether she is inviting me as a guest or asking me to pay for my ticket. Sometimes the ticket turns out to be very expensive and you only get to hear the cost when it is too late to say you can’t afford it. Mary, is there an elegant way of establishing what is on offer?

— N.N., New York

A. Yes: assume that you are being invited and say cheerily, ‘I’d love to come, but if you are paying for the tickets, then you must let me take you out for an early supper beforehand.’ In this way you avoid an ambush because, if the ticket is worth, say, five dinners, the proposer will be forced to say so.