Mary Killen

Your problems solved | 10 January 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary

Q. Mary, please help. How can I stop cold callers shattering the peace of my home life with telephone marketing? Neighbours think it funny to pretend that the ‘homeowner’ is unable to come to the telephone because he or she is drunk, but I do not wish to be rude. What do you suggest?

N.F., Richmond, Yorkshire

A. It is correct not to be rude to these hapless callers, the very nature of whose employment suggests that their self-esteem must already be at an all-time low. Instead take advantage of the Telephone Preference Service whose number is 0845 0700 707. Simply ring this number and a robot will talk you through the simple sequence of steps to enable you to put an end to the nuisance. After a few weeks you will receive no more calls. You can also register online at While you are about this business, it is also worth putting an end to silent calls — both to your own home and to the homes of elderly relations who find them frightening. I wouldn’t bother to ask them first; just key in their phone numbers. The Silent Callguard Service is on 0870 444 3969. This service is also free.

Q. A further note on public hand-holding. I have a new theory, given to me by an elderly homosexual couple: their objection to a ban is that old people do not particularly need to show affection in public but actually hold hands to support one another. I have been 28 for years, so I am old enough to remember when it seemed perfectly suitable to pop off at 60. Not any more. We are all living so much longer that all kinds of forms have to change in consequence — especially so, given that good and loyal servants are extinct.

B.T., by email,

A. Thank you for reminding readers of this very good point about physical support — the public fumblings of elderly couples are often misinterpreted. Re servants, you are over-pessimistic. The subtle pleasures and mental liberty offered by a life spent serving others will always bring fulfilment, and many readers will testify to receiving direct and continuing personal experience of this truth.

Q. A friend of mine is married to a soldier who thinks of himself as rather ‘macho’. The problem is that he has a very effeminate voice, so when I ring my friend I am initially never sure if it is him or her as neither of them gives their name when answering the phone. His macho self-image would not survive being mistaken for a woman, even telephonically. How can I avoid mistakenly confusing him for her?

K.C., Perth, Western Australia

A. When you telephone this couple, always announce yourself. ‘Hello, it’s —– [here give your Christian name].’ If the respondent fails to identify him or herself in response, just carry on probing along the lines of ‘How are you today? Have you achieved a lot?’ until such time as the activities on which your interlocutor has been engaged have provided sufficient clues to establish their gender.