Your problems solved | 15 November 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. While at a party at which I knew only the host, I made the mistake of trying to enter a group by laughing at a joke that I had not heard. Although rather silly, this would have been fine had the man standing next to me not asked what the joke was, as he had not heard. Dumbstruck with horror, I affected a coughing fit in order to escape. Please guard me against this terrifying situation with your advice as to what I should have done.

C.W., Edinburgh

A. You should have replied, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. I wasn’t actually laughing at whatever joke was being told there, I’m afraid I didn’t hear it. I just couldn’t help laughing when I saw the man telling it, because he is so like someone else I find tremendously funny. Just the sight of him reminded me of a joke that other man told me only the other night. Perhaps we can both ask what the joke was, or do you think that would be unpopular and break the momentum?’ People hate a social mystery, and if forced to reveal what the original joke was, you should just say, ‘Knock knock. Who’s there? Doctor. Doctor Who?’ and pretend that you thought it was funny.

Q. We were concerned with your answer regarding the ‘placement cards’ and the best sort to plump for. May we respectfully suggest putting the guest’s name on both sides of the card, since people opposite remain embarrassed while people adjacent have full view of the name?

J.G., by email

A. In my view that gesture would strike the wrong note. It smacks faintly of desperation and suggests that every guest is keen to extract as much social mileage as possible from what should be a relaxed occasion.

Q. I was very saddened to read the reply in your ‘Dear Mary’ section concerning holding hands in public. In an age awash with pornography and sexual deviancy, to advise against the innocent and sincere demonstration of affection in public is retrogressive and defeatist. Your columnist is advocating that loutishness should overcome gentleness and that youth should dictate to age. Such modish conformity to debased contemporary assumptions is contemptible.

R.P., France.

A. The editor has passed on your complaints. A number of other readers have written to express their dismay. I have to admit that, on this occasion, I was swayed in my response by the influence of an extremely tall and eminent 77-year-old adviser, a charismatic man, who was at my side during composition and under whose spell I wrote my reply. I would now like to retract my advice and urge elderly romantic partners to demonstrate their affection in this harmless way whenever they feel like it.

If you have a problem, please write to Dear Mary, c/o 56 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LL.