Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 17 July 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. What advice can you give to a boy of 16 (my brother) who has not been out with a girl before? He fancies one at his school but although I have told him he is cool he does not have the nerve to ask her out. He is almost more worried about her saying yes than no. He says he wouldn’t know where to take her or what to say.

D.C., London W6

A. Rather than asking her out, your brother should ask her to help him dye his hair. Girls cannot resist the chance to conduct a cosmetic experiment, and since the procedure is soothing for both parties a relaxed intimacy will ensue. More to the point, the inevitable choice of venue — his house or hers — is both budget- and parent-friendly.

Q. Recently I went to a large dinner party given by a man I have no reason to suppose is mean; indeed, rather the opposite. The first course was lamb and to my surprise a waitress went round our table pouring out red wine for the men only. I called out to her, thinking she’d forgotten me by mistake, but she ignored me. A minute later a second waitress came in and poured out red wine for the women. Later the man on my right asked if I would like some more wine but said, ‘Finish that cat’s piss in your glass first.’ He then poured out wine for me from the bottle in front of him. I am no wine buff but could tell at once that this was infinitely superior. I am flabbergasted by our host’s behaviour. Can you throw any light on it?

Name and address withheld

A. Yes, I believe I can. My guess is that at the last minute your host found he had inadequate supplies of the superior vintage. Rather than highlight the quality differential by switching halfway, he opted to divide the spoils by sex. That would have been easiest for the waitresses and he could hardly divide them by ‘those with a palate and those without’. It was nothing more sinister or sexist than that.

Q. I went to a party the other night where I knew so many people that it was impossible to speak more than a sentence to any one of them without one of us being interrupted by someone else passing by and pausing to say hello. Other than donning two sets of blinkers for every conversation, what can one do in a situation like that, Mary?

Name withheld, London W11

A. Sit in your car outside the party. Intercept your special friends as they are coming and going and invite them to join you for a chat.

Q. The recent letter about guests who arrived with dog reminded me of a story I heard last year. A prominent female New Yorker (president of art museum boards, etc.) and her boyfriend arrived for lunch at the country home of their fellow socialite Anne Bass in Connecticut, together with their large and badly behaved dog, which had not been explicitly invited. The dog (though charming to dog-lovers) was a nuisance throughout the visit. The next day the guest’s phone rang. A voice said, ‘Mrs G., you don’t know me but I am a dog trainer. Mrs Bass is giving me to you.’ An extravagant response, perhaps, but most likely effective.

Name and address withheld

A. Thank you for sharing this harmless nugget.