Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 7 August 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I am 16 and am looking forward to the delights of Daymer Bay in Cornwall, a meeting-ground renowned for its nightly teenage public-school gatherings. I am somewhat nervous as I do not smoke, and most of my friends use cigarettes as tools of entry into a circle of people. How, Mary, can I avoid the terrible prospect of being left standing alone, and thus immediately being classified as a loser?

M.M.H., Wooton Rivers, Wiltshire

A. I am reliably informed that the correct etiquette for those wishing to enter a conversational cluster on Daymer Bay is to simply walk into it saying, ‘Blahblahblah.’ This is an ironic nod to the artificiality of opening gambits, an acknowledgment that everyone on Daymer Bay is in the same boat and all are keen to penetrate the conversational clusters with the minimum pain and embarrassment.

Q. My wallet does not match my aspirations, but where clothing is concerned I am quite good at finding substitutes. What should I say when, at a party, people admire, for example, my ‘Prada’ shirt, which in reality comes from Zara? Should I tell them they are mistaken, thus making them feel foolish, or should I let them think I can afford Prada (which might be good for my professional image)? It seems dishonest to do the latter.

M.W., London SW3

A. There should be no need for you to say anything at all. Perhaps you have not noticed, but people very rarely listen these days at parties. They are too busy queuing to make their own next fatuous comment. Just look vague for a couple of seconds and the empty silence will soon be filled by more meaningless prattle.

Q. This coming weekend I had planned to go and stay with some friends at their home in Provence. Subsequently I received what is known in some circles as a considerably better invitation, to stay with mutual friends who live a short distance away from the first friends. I do not need to be told that chucking one invitation for another is not on, but I do need your advice as to how I can extricate myself from the first invitation in favour of the second with as much discretion and ingenuity as possible.

J.M., London SW11

A. The social order will collapse altogether if people start chucking in favour of ‘better’ invitations. In theory you must stick to Plan A. However, it is worth considering the following method, which was once used by one of my acquaintances. Telephoning Hostess A, she announced the coincidence of the invitation to Hostess B but billed it as a social opportunity for Hostess A rather than herself. ‘I mean, I’d obviously far rather stay with you, but if you feel it would be more fun for your party to use me as a sort of Trojan horse to get all of you lot invited over there so you can all meet Jeremy Paxman, Paddy Leigh Fermor and Joe and Leonie Gibbs (to pluck some desirable names out of a hat), then I’ll make the supreme sacrifice and go there instead. I can always come to you some other time.’ Hostess A fell for it.