Mary Killen

Your problems solved | 14 February 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. What would be a fitting response to the extremely patronising remark ‘My goodness, you’ve got him well trained!’ This whenever my husband serves, clears (and has often prepared) a dinner party. Such behaviour is still obviously unacceptable to the majority of guests, even in these enlightened times, and among forty-somethings. I am normally left speechless. Please help.

Name and address withheld

A. Why not reply, ‘On the contrary. He’s got me well trained into just standing back and letting him do everything. Didn’t you know that housework is the new leisure activity of choice? It’s so soothing compared to real life.’

Q. The other night I was rounded on at a dinner party by a shrill female television producer who said I shouldn’t have jumped the queue by going privately for a small operation I have just had. At the time I couldn’t quite articulate my justification for going private, other than a selfish wish to bring my discomfort to a close as quickly as possible. If I had had my full wits about me and been feeling more physically robust, how could I have best defended myself, Mary?

L.J., Andover, Hampshire

A. There is no point in rehearsing the old arguments about how you are paying a voluntary extra tax, or how you are lightening the NHS burden by passing up the chance to exploit our rights to free treatment. It is better simply to say, ‘I’m sorry. I know you must feel bitter. I know it is very galling for people who can’t afford to have private treatment to see others being able to pay for it. But I’m afraid I have taken the Diane Abbott view. It’s indefensible but I still did it — because I wanted to.’

Q. Please help. My mother-in-law, in other ways an admirable woman, cannot resist meddling in every aspect of our lives. She has a skin like a rhinoceros and is impervious to pleas to keep her distance. The final straw came when, two days after my mother’s death, she rang to ask whether I would like her help in buying flowers for my personal floral tribute at the funeral. How should I have responded so that she got the message without my seeming rude or ungrateful?

J.B., North Yorkshire

A. You have an attitude problem. Most modern people need all the back-up they can get. Rather than being chippy about your own personal competence, you should be enjoying the facilities on offer. For example, when your mother-in-law asked whether you would like her help with the funeral flowers, you could have replied pleasantly, ‘No thanks, I’ve dealt with that. But there is something else you could do which would be really helpful. Would you run a crèche for our friends’ children or be in charge of clearing up any dog poo in the churchyard?’ Your mother-in-law probably just wants to be involved but, in this way, even if there is a bit of a quiet power struggle going on, you can still sit in the driver’s seat at the same time as saving yourself between £6 and £10 per hour for the cost of hiring spare pairs of hands.