Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 23 April 2005

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

Text settings

Dear Mary...

Q. My sister-in-law, whom I am fond of and who is very generous, has an annoying habit of inviting herself to the house whenever she likes, usually at very short notice. Each summer there is a music festival in a village near me. She happened to call on me last year at that time, and went with me to several of the events. Now she keeps saying, ‘I must come down again for the music festival’ as though it were a fait accompli. I have arranged a house party for the weekend in question and do not have any more room. She cannot take a hint, and if I tell her about the house party she will simply say either that she’ll come for the day or stay in a nearby hotel, making me feel very guilty. How should I deal with this, Mary?

Name and address withheld

A. On a superficial level, your query seems mean-spirited, especially when you have admitted that your sister-in-law has attractive qualities and you enjoy her company. However this is an issue of territory — of psychological territory. The fact is that many of us assume different personae when interacting with our friends as opposed to our family members, and we can feel shifty and inhibited when simultaneously confronted by representatives from both groups. You can guiltlessly knock this problem on the head once and for all by baldly explaining this to your sister-in-law so that she sees you must be free to orchestrate the cast list for your own house parties. No doubt she will assume in the first instance that you are batty, but she will not hold it against you if you offer compensation in the form of another weekend party where the guest list is orchestrated especially to amuse her.

Q. I have neighbours who are very close friends and I go often to their house, occasionally dropping in but usually by invitation. They are always wonderfully hospitable but, being foreigners, they have very odd telephone manners. They often receive phone calls while I am there, and always answer them — understandably enough — but then carry on lengthy conversations over many minutes, while I am left wondering why the invited guest in the flesh is neglected for the uninvited caller on the telephone. How can I persuade these dear friends to drop this habit without offending them?

Name and address withheld

A. Next time this happens, when your neighbour completes her call, say in admiring tones, ‘Gosh, I wish I was able to be like you. If that were me, and you were in my house, I would have totally forgotten what you and I had been talking about ten minutes before and I wouldn’t be able to resume the conversation once the call had finished!’ Continue to exult, ‘But you must be able to get so much done by being able to concentrate on two people at once and field all your telephone calls at the same time as you’re entertaining someone. I wish I could multi-task like that!’ Probe with terrier-like tenacity about her methods of juggling so much data in her brain and, when forced to consider them, it should dawn on her that perhaps she has breached British etiquette. If not, why not bring out your own mobile and try to process some business calls the next time the outrage occurs.