Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 12 October 2002

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. Last week I had dinner in a restaurant with some old friends whose number included a woman we all like a lot with her new (younger) boyfriend. The latter responded to every question about himself and his work as though he was his own public-relations officer. Everything was going very well, everyone rated him very highly, all his projects were extremely successful (he is in the film business) - it was most off-putting. The man was not even American. How can we honestly respond when she asks for our opinion of him? (She had been on the shelf for some time and we do not wish to be discouraging.)

Name and address withheld

A. Time was when lack of modesty in an Englishman was a fail-safe yardstick for judging. Cultural changes have rendered this method obsolete. Viral marketing, the successful Internet means of creating a 'buzz', has forced even the most naturally self-deprecating of men into boastfulness in normal conversation as a necessary part of their work. Tell your friend you are really looking forward to meeting the boyfriend again as 'now we have got over the obstacle of talking about what he does for a living, we can really start to get to know him'.

Q. Two weeks ago I sent a thank-you letter to friends following a delightful week as their guest in Scotland. However, in haste I addressed the envelope incorrectly. Imagine my surprise this morning to receive a letter from the unexpected recipient of my original letter, who had opened the incorrectly addressed envelope to identify me, and returned my original with a note expressing apologies for the intrusion and the hope that I could now resend it to the correct address. As you can imagine, I am deeply grateful for this shining example of thoughtfulness. How, if at all, should I acknowledge such an act of kindness, and even perhaps reimburse the cost of a stamp and an envelope, without in so doing diminishing the extent of my gratitude?

D.B., London SW6

A. The 'value' of this stranger's good deed is abstract but clearly worth more than 30 pence. A letter expressing gratitude will be rewarding enough, but if you throw in a lightweight present of a book of 12 peel-off first-class stamps, you will also cause a ripple effect. Each time he uses one he will be reminded of his good deed and, since virtue is its own reward, in this way you will repay him measure for measure.

Q. A very close neighbour of mine in the country has a perfect garden which she shows to the public. She is also a very tiresome snob about it and makes withering remarks to the rest of us whose gardens are less adequate or include varieties which she deems to be 'not quite the thing'. How can we take her down a peg or two?

A.C., London W8

A. There is no need to go so far as the community-service criminals in Rotherham who planted daffodil bulbs in a municipal park which came up five months later spelling out 'F- off'. However, you could wait till next April and secretly insert a profusion of gladioli corms at the back of one of your neighbour's prized borders. By leaf alone they may not be readily identifiable when they start to come through. Only when it is too late and they have burst into full vulgar bloom will you gain the satisfaction you require. May I suggest a frilly variety, or 'President Kennedy', described in the Reader's Digest Encylopaedia of Garden Plants as 'salmon orange with crimson throats'.