Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 6 September 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. Our 15-year-old daughter was invited as a guest to accompany a schoolfriend on holiday with her friend's father and stepmother (whom we have not met) as the elder sister did not wish to go. In a telephone conversation to discuss possible dates that would not conflict with our own family holiday, my wife offered to contribute towards the cost of the holiday, suggesting that we pay the airfare, as we have for our son when he has been invited to stay with friends abroad. Out of the blue we received a letter two months later informing us that they were booked into a five-star hotel for two weeks in Italy and that the exact cost of our daughter's holiday was in excess of £2,000. There were protestations that the father would be happy to pay for the entire holiday, as he was not taking his elder daughter. What should we have done? We reluctantly sent a polite letter with a cheque for the full amount, which has since been paid in but not even acknowledged.

H.T., London NW1

A. On holidays like this the host parent normally pays for accommodation and food, while the guest parent offers to pay for travel and extras such as water-skiing lessons. But the scenario you describe is a classic new-money muddle. Your host's protestations were almost certainly sincere. He actually wanted to pay the full cost of your daughter's holiday 1. to suck up to his daughter out of guilt at being divorced 2. out of guilt that his elder daughter clearly did not wish to share a holiday with the stepmother, thus leaving the younger without a companion 3. out of a pure display of wealth. You were only informed of the precise outlay involved to give you a lottery-winner-style thrill of pleasure at receiving something for nothing. Instead you have snubbed him by sending the cheque which has now been banked 1. out of pique 2. by the secretary without his even having realised it has come in 3. by the stepmother. Better luck next year.

Q. I do relish bringing together over lunch friends with similar tastes and interests. To give us time for more leisured convivial exchanges, I'd like to do it over dinner instead. Can this be contrived without roping in spouses and companions who may not share these likes and interests?

R.V., New Delhi

A. Here is a skeleton solution that you can flesh out to suit your needs. Imagine a couple named Bill and Benita. You want Bill but not Benita. You ring them and say, 'I want to organise a dinner for Freddie (for example). Are you both free every night for the next two weeks?' Make a note of the nights when Benita is unavailable. Ring back a few days later saying that those are the only nights when Freddie can come to dinner, so does she mind if Bill comes on his own?

Q. How much is a first-class stamp to Europe?

A.M., Fulham, SW6

A. I'm glad you asked. A lot of people think it costs the same as a first-class stamp in England and great mounds of letters go undelivered as a consequence. In fact, it is 38 pence.