Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 30 August 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I regularly enjoy Sunday lunch at a premier hotel here in Bangkok. The food is exceptional and the Thai service staff friendly and professional. Staff recognise and greet me on arrival with a warm, formal 'Good morning, Mr Smith'. A couple of Sundays ago, chatting with an attractive waitress by way of a little innocent flirtation, I suggested she call me 'Michael'. Since then I am greeted with 'Hello, Michael' on arrival by all and sundry at the hotel. Clearly she thought this was my preferred form of address and advised her boss accordingly. Being Thai, they were not aware of the subtlety. Mary, how can I solve this problem without embarrassing her or appearing to the staff to be a snob?

M.S., Khlongsan, Bangkok

A. I fear that you have committed an unforgivable faux pas, in Asian terms, by suggesting to a junior and female employee that she should use an intimate form of address. You have lost face not only with her, but also with the entire staff of the hotel. To be frank, the situation is irredeemable, and my only advice can be that you find yourself another congenial hotel and this time avoid making such a grave social error.

Q. I am shortly going to spend a few days in the country house of a friend. I know it is common to bring a present to a house-party but, to be frank, my hostess, whom I love dearly, is common. Money is no object and she already has everything it can buy. She also has a husband and four young children. Can you suggest a novel present, Mary?

D.S., London W11

A. Why not buy her a loud-hailer from a ship's chandler? They cost around £35 and go down a treat in both lower- and upper-class households. They can be used in the former to settle arguments and in the latter to summon children and dogs from extensive parkland.

Q. I have lived in New Zealand for more than 30 years. In that time I have become used to most of the language differences between New Zealand and England, such as 'stove' meaning 'cooker' and 'muffler' meaning 'silencer'. However, I find it impossible to ignore wrong pronunciation and undesirable word usage. I find myself saying 'leisure' when I have just heard 'leesure' and I wince when I hear phrases such as 'endeavour to commence' rather than 'try to start'. My first job in London brought me into daily contact with a highly educated Oxbridge man. I can still vividly remember my embarrassment when I said to him, 'I have prepared the schedule' and he replied, 'Thank you – please pass me the list.' Mary, please help me resolve this dilemma. Should I correct, in my reply, the pronunciation of words just heard (and risk embarrassing the speaker) or use the local pronunciation (and thus do in Rome as the Romans do, even though I think I know better)?

B.W. Glendowie, Auckland

A. Like you, the Romans are susceptible to peer pressure, but they also enjoy nostalgia and, in these anti-globalisation days, diversity. Far from being offended by your own 'original' pronunciations, they are more than likely to welcome the novelty value they afford. There should be no whiff of rebuke. The key thing is to present them as ingrained habits which you cannot shake off – just as they cannot shake off their own habits of pronouncing the very same words in the way that they do.