Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 12 February 2005

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I sent a thank-you letter for dinner to a couple whom I know only slightly. In the thank-you letter, I asked them to dinner. I have had no reply and the date has come and gone. Does this mean that they didn’t get the thank-you letter — in which case they will think me rude for not thanking them? Should I write again? Or does it mean that they are rude in not replying to my invitation?

V.I., London W12

A. Rudeness is unlikely. If they live in London, where the post is now so bad that party invitations are frequently sent by hand or by email, they may not have received your letter. The other possibility is that they saw you had sent a thank-you letter, assumed it was all guff, and didn’t bother reading it all the way through. You can get to the bottom of this mystery. Ring their landline and prepare your mobile to dial the same number. Keep a radio, set to ‘static’, ready to be turned on. When the landline answers, turn on the radio and put the receiver against it. Simultaneously press ‘send’ on your mobile and walk to another room. In this way you will get straight through to voicemail and can leave a message, giving them time to make up an excuse before ringing you back. You could even suggest, in tinkling and indulgent tones, ‘I wonder if you have done something I sometimes do, which is to put a thank-you letter down half read, and then never get round to finishing it?’

Q. I am arranging my daughter’s wedding and feel somewhat obliged to ask my late husband’s sister. However, the bride has decreed that I shouldn’t, for fear of her arriving inappropriately turned out and not easily to be avoided. How do I get round not sending her an invitation without causing offence to my late husband’s family?

Name and address withheld

A. You must definitely invite this family member. One, on humanitarian grounds. Two, because it is traditional to have inappropriately dressed, boring and/or embarrassing people at weddings. They are part of life’s rich tapestry. What is more, in providing a useful yardstick for people to judge themselves against, they serve to reassure other guests who might otherwise feel they are dull, unimportant or that their own clothing is inappropriate. Do not let your daughter bully you. She is very likely a member of BOG (the Blame Others Generation) and in later life might ask why you had let her overrule you. She would judge, quite reasonably, that it had been cruel to exclude this already disadvantaged woman.

Q. Regarding your correspondent last month and the question of what to wear to a fancy-dress party: when I was of an age and it was obligatory to attend a fancy-dress function, I invariably solved the dilemma successfully by going to a theatrical costumier, hiring a dog collar and going as a vicar. No matter what the theme or the terms of reference of the party — even if King Solomon’s Mines — one can still claim a dog collar to be appropriate.

E.D.G., Lostwithiel, Cornwall

A. Thank you for this time-saving tip. At a pinch one could wear an ordinary white shirt back to front along with a sober suit and spare oneself the trip to the costumiers.