Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 17 May 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I cannot believe that you condone the habit of 'high-profile guests' who keep their hosts waiting while they decide whether or not to accept an invitation (26 April). Their so-called 'ruthless insistence on flexibility where social arrangements are concerned' shows a weakness of self-importance. The hosts would no doubt have other guests they would like to invite instead. I cannot believe that you yourself would display such a lack of courtesy.

J.T., London SW7

A. No, I personally would not behave in this way and I regret having given the impression of condoning the practice of hedging in general. I hoped I had made clear that I was dealing only with top-of-the-range hedging, i.e., among those of presidential status. Hedging still happens in other ranks, of course, and it is antisocial. No matter how brilliant or eligible someone may be, if they hedge over lunches and dinners to which they have been invited as a specific human 'ingredient', invitations will swiftly dry up and they will be relegated to drinks parties only.

Q. I am 77 and my spectacles slide down my nose. I have suggested getting a pair with hooks (over the ears), but my optician, my wife and all my children treat the idea with scorn. Are hooks permissible?

T.J., London SW6

A. The normal procedure is to visit your optician and have him heatshrink the glasses back to the size that fits you – a service normally performed free of charge. It is tedious to have to keep doing this, but hooks over the ears would be uncomfortable. In Sunglass Hut they sell children's sunglasses complete with an adjustable tube of elasticated fleece which keeps the sunglasses 'snug' on the child's face. Ask your wife to use her initiative to knock up something similar for you. If she fails to co-operate, visit a joke shop and buy one of those 'Sir Roy Strong' funny faces, complete with glasses, nose and moustache. These come with hooks, and if you wear them over your own glasses, they will certainly keep them securely in place.

Q. I am the father of four-year-old twins. Since their birth, I have been asked by friends, acquaintances and complete strangers (in the street!) if they were conceived by IVF. As it happens, they were conceived naturally, but I am uncomfortable about discussing the subject because (a) it is personal and (b) I feel as though a truthful answer might sound like a criticism of parents who have used IVF (as one of my relatives has). Evasion is taken as an admission. How should I respond?

Name and address withheld

A. Why not pull them up sharp by fixing them with a sympathetic stare and inquiring kindly, 'Why do you ask? Are you undergoing IVF yourself?' Before they have the chance to reply, cut in with, 'Sorry, don't answer that intrusive question. Why should you tell me about something so private and special? Forgive me. I don't know why I asked you. I'm sure you wish now that you hadn't asked me.'