Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 6 December 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I have always deplored the practice of having to shake hands with strangers. After a burly oaf at a smart luncheon party shook my hand with unseemly force, I was barely able to hold my knife. The pain and fear that he had crushed the bones made me acutely aware of the barbarousness of the practice of handshaking in general. (I recall that the late Duke of Windsor had his arm in a sling for three months after visiting India.) Since this unfortunate episode I have, understandably, been shy of hearty handshakers. My position is complicated by the fact that I live in South Africa where any gesture that looks remotely unfriendly is immediately interpreted as racist, and the African people make a particular point of shaking hands with the triple handshake. Each student in a class I give insists on doing so at every session. I have tried every dodge, like having both hands full as I enter the lecture-room. Gloves are not a solution, and a bandage would be impractical. Can you think of any way in which I can avoid pain and distaste for this dreadful practice without causing offence?

Name and address withheld

A. Possibly by becoming a Buddhist, in which case you would take up the practice of putting your hands together in front of you, as they do in Thailand (and as in Christian prayer) when greeting people. Thus your hands would not be available for shaking unless rudely prised apart ' which any respectful person would be unlikely to try. In this way, you may actually rise in the estimation of anti-rascists for overtly adopting the customs of another culture. You would also be following the example of Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu) who used this greeting when working in South Africa as a young lawyer and encountered no problems.

Q. I have moved from Wiltshire to Cornwall and now participate in a brisk social life accompanied by a certain increased degree of formality ' doubtless due, in part, to the seniority of those involved. However, I recently received an invitation to luncheon inscribed 'jacket and tie', which I find unsettling. I am accustomed to instruction as to what to wear in the evenings, e.g., 'black tie', 'decorations', but this is the first time I have been told what to wear at luncheon. Do you share my sense of surprise?

E.D.G., Lostwithiel, Cornwall

A. Yes, but your hostess's practice may be part of a reaction against the increasing wave of sartorial laxity enshrined in the concept 'anything goes'. This may well be flowing westwards from the capital as a number of readers have written to complain of guests arriving for country luncheons in open shirts, jeans, torn cardigans and the like. Your hostess is to be congratulated on a valiant attempt to stem this offensive tide.

Q. I am engaged in a friendly dispute with a peer, on which hangs a case of champagne. It concerns dinner table etiquette. To whom should a man talk for the first part of a dinner party? I maintain that he should talk to the woman on his left. My friend, who outranks me, insists that the man should talk to the woman on his right, particularly if he is the host and the woman has been placed on his right as the most important female guest. Which of us is correct?

M.S.D., Oxfordshire

A. The man should first talk to the female on his right.