Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 18 September 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. Interrogatives like ‘Are you seeing anyone?’ are gauche and unhelpful. Likewise ‘What does your partner do?’ or, to a third party, ‘Is your friend attached?’ When, increasingly, the lack of a ring signifies nothing, even among the more mature, perhaps, Mary, you might offer a discreet means of establishing a person’s status.

I.S.W., Inverclyde

A. You can trick people into revealing their romantic status by asking if they play tennis or bridge. If they reply in the affirmative, say ‘Oh great — do you have a partner who plays too?’ If they say no, say, ‘Oh, what a shame. You don’t have a partner, as they say, who likes playing?’ Having ascertained their status you can then pretend you were only inquiring on behalf of a friend who is always on the lookout for people to play with.

Q. At parties which I feel obliged to attend in order to keep up university ties, one particular old friend, who works for an agency famous for managing spunky tweenie popstars, has taken to regaling her audience with endless lame tales of her celebrity encounters, which include her presenter sibling. While eyes glaze over and blank faces stare straight through her, she continues without pause for breath and always fails to ask news of her listeners. Bearing in mind that this used to be my closest friend before I was thrown to the wayside in her chase for glitz and glamour, how does one approach this self-indulgence without appearing envious of her proximity to C-list life? I have grown weary of waiting for this phase to pass.

E.K., London NW1

A. An annoying, but effective, method of correcting this behaviour would be for you and her other friends to cry out ‘Ding!’ with each celebrity name-drop. It is impossible to keep up the momentum of an anecdote which is being constantly interrupted by a chorus of voices shouting ‘Ding!’ When she demands to know what ‘Ding!’ means, you can reply that you are just imagining how the cash registers at the tabloid newspapers would be sounding were they only able to eavesdrop. Then carry on shouting ‘Ding!’ when she resumes the tales. She will soon make the Pavlovian connection between telling C-list tales and irritation, and with luck you will see a return to normal conversation.

Q. I am working as an amanuensis for a well-known figure. The job is live-in. My boss has openly boasted of the fact that her entire family has ‘supernits’ which are impossible to treat since nit nurses were removed from schools as part of the Human Rights agenda. How can I avoid catching them?

M.G.B., Boar’s Hill, Oxford

A. Presumably you have fresh linen on your bed. Ensure that you do not loll on sofas or against chair or car seat backs, and do not pore over maps or books with any member of the family or allow your head to come within two feet of theirs. As an added precaution, spray your own head with a mist of tea-tree oil. This should see off the potential nuisance.