Mary Killen

Your problems solved | 27 March 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary

Q. Despite the fact that I have been attending parties for many years, I have not yet mastered the art of laughing at jokes that I do not find remotely funny. Can you think of any solutions?

Name and address withheld

A. It is well known in humorist circles that many of those who are in clear possession of a sense of humour do not necessarily respond to funniness by laughing. Indeed, a smile never breaches the lips of one of our leading humorists. Instead she reacts to good jokes with an expressionless face, shaking her head sagely and intoning ‘That’s very funny’ in a slow and monotonous voice. You could adapt this method to your own use since it gives the impression that the joke is so profoundly funny that it is beyond smiling or laughing at.

Q. Last weekend my wife and I were lent a country cottage belonging to two married friends while they were away in Wales. Everything was perfect, including the extremely comfortable bed. The only thing that marred this idyllic holiday setting was the electric kettle in the kitchen, which, as people knowledgable about antiques, we estimated to be of some considerable age. I should add that my wife is a connoisseur of the ‘golden leaf’ and will partake only of the most delicate Darjeeling (such as that purveyed in square green tins at Fortnum and Mason), and she found the combination of that fine blend with geological levels of limescale not quite to her taste. We paid a visit to an electrical goods emporium in the local town and bought a shiny new kettle. This resplendent article we left behind in the hope that it would come as a welcome surprise to our friends. However, as we drove away we began to worry that the old kettle may be imbued with some poignant, sentimental significance, and that by replacing it we have trampled over private matters that should not be our concern. Besides, we thought with growing embarrassment, what if our friends view the new kettle as an implicit criticism of their choice of kitchen equipment and take offence? Have we done the right thing, Mary?

R. & I., London W11

A. Yes, of course you have done the right thing, provided you did not dispose of the old kettle. It was an implicit criticism of your friends’ choice of equipment, but an affectionate and helpful one.

Q. Your advice in your 6 March column to S.G. about not remembering names after an introduction does not work for those of us who are over 50 and cannot punch a cellphone’s tiny keyboard or read the LCD without a telescope. A better method, practised here in Baltimore, Maryland, is to approach the familiar face and announce, in a tone suggesting that you are not remembered by them, ‘It’s Ben Reynolds,’ and clasp their hand (not doable with a cellphone and a drink). In reciprocation of which anyone but the Queen will reply, ‘Of course, Ben, I know you, and I’m X.’

Ben Reynolds, Baltimore, MD

A. Thank you for submitting your considerate tip.