Mary Killen

Your problems solved | 7 February 2004

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I was brought up always to write thank-you letters for gifts [sic]. In recent years I have found that I am usually far too busy, especially as I would have to write them on behalf of my young children (who receive far too many presents anyway) and also my husband. Is it all right to thank people using email, if that is how we normally correspond anyway? It feels wrong, and a letter is always nice, but it does at least mean that they get thanked. If it isn’t all right, can you suggest a speedy and timely way to say thank you?

L.A.S., London SW6

A. It is possible to batter out two thank-you emails per minute, but your output will fall on fallow ground. Everyone knows that emails are more about sounding-off, buck-passing or time-wasting than about conveying properly considered or sincere information. The whiff of electronic promiscuity about a thank-you email renders its expression of gratitude less plausible than its handwritten equivalent, the ideal. The most timely way to thank is simply by telephone, and you can be excused for ringing because you have the chance to find out how the present-giver is. Your husband must write his own letters, and even if your children do get too many presents it will confuse their moral compass if you do not force them to thank, if only telephonically.

Q. A friend of mine invited some friends and neighbours for a New Year village party. Two arrived with a car boot full of balloons with ‘Happy 50th Birthday’ written on them. The host thanked them but told them it was neither a birthday party nor his 50th birthday. Despite his requests, the two guests brought the balloons into the party, not once but twice, and insisted on making everyone sing ‘Happy Birthday’. My friend’s response — he has a moderately short fuse — was to pop the balloons with a lighter. How can my preternaturally youthful friend correct the misconception among his neighbours, who were also understandably embarrassed?

Name and address withheld

A. Your friend can achieve a satisfactory revenge on the teasers. Local newspapers generally have a section where births, deaths and marriages are recorded alongside boxed photographic announcements inserted by well-wishers to celebrate the birthdays of friends or family members. Let us say the pranksters are 45 years old. How about a photograph of each above their full name with accompanying best wishes for their forthcoming 60th birthdays? It would repay a minimal financial investment with many hours of pleasure.

Q. We have a friend who is delightful except for her maddening habit of balancing her wine glass on the arm of her sofa or armchair. There has been an accident on almost every visit. The habit is pure laziness — she doesn’t want to stretch forward to retrieve the glass from the load-bearing surfaces nearby, but it makes everyone else in the room feel very nervous. What should we do, Mary?

A.B., Brokenborough, Wiltshire

A. Keep a handy supply of leak-free, germ-free trainer cups for toddlers on your drinks table. Next time your friend visits, teach her a lesson by serving her drink in one of these.