Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 29 March 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. At a party the other day a friend of mine took a canapZ off a loaded plate that was being carried by someone she thought was one of the catering staff, only to realise, on account of the woman's astonished look, that she was a guest and the plate a private one, as it were. What should my friend have said?

L.B., London W8

A. The normal response from the woman carrying the plate would have been to laugh pleasantly at the mistake and use it as an opening gambit in conversation. However, since the woman's body language was clearly giving off waitress signals, she might well have been suffering from low self-esteem, a condition which would only have been compounded by your friend's error. There is nothing wrong with waitresses - indeed, many glamorous youths work for catering agencies, even run their own, these days. Your friend could have redressed the balance and boosted the woman's self-esteem by quipping, 'Oh, sorry! You look so young that I assumed you must be a gap-year waitress.'

Q. An acquaintance of mine has a penchant for sticking things 'where the sun don't shine' in a vain attempt to gain attention at weekend country gatherings. His original prop was a cigar, which he used in a presidential if unconvincing manner to imitate our great wartime leader. More recently, he has resorted to a fellow-guest's toothbrush, and unfortunately encouraged amateur paparazzi to record the incident for posterity. He is clearly in need of help, but his friends are uncertain from which angle to approach him. Can you give us some advice, please?

Name and address withheld

A. As you say, the man's objective is to gain attention. The solution therefore lies in convincing him that these antics have lost their shock potential. Next time you introduce him to someone, prime them to say something along the following lines: 'I've heard a lot about you and - can you believe it? - you must be about the tenth person I've met in the last week who sticks things up their bum at parties. It's an amazing coincidence, isn't it? I'll tell you who else does it....' She should then reel off a list of fictitious names. 'One was called David Baxter, then there was Alan Brown....' before pausing. 'But I met these people when I was interviewing people for jobs as cinema ushers. We had to ask what their hobbies were. You're the first person I've met socially who does it.' This should see an end to the nuisance.

Q. As the picnic season is now upon us, I am beginning to worry about what protocol I should follow when I see a fellow-picnicker discarding litter.

E.B., Lewes, East Sussex

A. Why not follow the example set by the anti-litter society of the 1930s known as the Pugpups (Pick up glass, pick up paper). This group picked up litter and returned it to the offender with the words, 'Oh look, you've dropped something.' When the litter lout replied, 'Oh, we don't want it,' the Pugpup would counter, 'Well, we don't either.'