Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 30 April 2005

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. Further to your letter regarding the telephone habits of foreigners, would they by any chance be Greek? Married for 20 years to a Greek, I am aware that no convention attaches at all to what we consider to be good manners. Calls will be placed and accepted at any place and any time without restraint on the length, volume or banality of the discussion. I have regularly been to dinner parties where invitees settle on the sofa, among other guests, and as many as two or three of them will make outgoing calls which are manifestly not urgent. Remonstration is received with puzzlement as there is no recognition of any rudeness.

R. McM., by email

A. My previous correspondent was complaining, as it happens, about someone of Indian lineage, not Greek, but as far as I know the offence is not racially linked. To talk into a mobile at length, when the call is not urgent and while your three-dimensional interlocutor is at hand restlessly waiting for you to finish is, of course, not the behaviour of a gentleman. People who do this are generally insecure about their status and/or their job. The irony is that, particularly in these frantic times, the more inaccessible one is, the more desirable. Even in the money market, the biggest of wigs is rarely seen answering his mobile when in company. The ‘crackberry’ gave a bit of trouble when it was first launched, but owners have since learnt to repress their addiction since to succumb to it resulted in a certain loss of dignity.

Q. Your recent (16 April) reference to ‘using the loo’ dealt with an important problem, particularly to those of us who enjoy the doubtful privilege of using the Kent trains, which are regularly marked by the local pond life who revel in trashing anything clean or orderly, while exhibiting a dire disregard for hygiene. On these occasions I find the sad but accurate comment ‘I warn you — it’s pretty disgusting in there’ to the waiting travellers is both accurate and self-exculpatory.

Col J., East Kent

A. Thank you for this useful tip.

Q. I am shortly to give a dinner party for an 80-year-old friend who very much wants to meet some neighbours of mine who are writers but very politically correct. My friend, however, has never brought himself up to date on PC and, although I have warned him to behave himself, it comes quite naturally to him to talk about such things as ‘wogs’ and to make remarks such as ‘the working classes love being in hospital. It’s the only chance they ever get to be waited upon’. How can I ensure that my other guests do not storm out in disgust, Mary?

Name withheld, Pewsey, Wilts

A. Simply warn the writers in advance that your friend is a relic of a bygone age and ask them to view his output in the light of fascinating social history, rather than as remarks engineered to excite defensive reactions. When he gets going you can lead the responses to his more offensive remarks by echoing them. ‘“Wogs!” It’s years since I heard that word. Your attitudes are fascinating to us. Do go on, tell us more. You see, no one of our generation has prejudices like these. Isn’t it fun to hear them?’ In this way you will defuse the tension.