Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 7 June 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. Earlier this year we went to stay with friends in Devon for the weekend. Our host went to tremendous trouble trying to find enough horses to enable our whole family (of six) to hunt. We had brought with us a present of a small box of chocolates and when, on the Saturday evening, our hosts took us out to dinner at a neighbour's they brought these chocolates with them, exclaiming cheerfully in the car on the way, 'I thought we'd give them your delicious chocolates. I'll tell them they are from all of us.' Either wittingly or unwittingly, they thereby conveyed to us their view that a small box of chocolates is a suitably proportionate present for a dinner party rather than for a weekend. Next time we go there, how do you suggest that we compensate for our negligence?

R.O., Sittingbourne, Kent

A. The whole business of present-giving has got out of hand. We are no longer living in the days of wartime rationing, which is when the practice of bringing presents to house-parties originated. No host expects a present on a parity with the entertainment laid on. What, for example, if hunting had been cancelled owing to fog or ice? Would the fact that you hadn't then needed the horses have meant that the chocolates were now adequate? Following this line of thought you would end up bringing a suitcase of gifts of varying value, then handing out whichever seemed appropriate at the end of the weekend. In the loftiest of circles the guests do not bring presents at all. Sometimes they return the hospitality, sometimes not. There is no spectre of quid pro quo, simply a plan to enjoy each other's company.

Q. It has always been my understanding that gentlemen do not discuss business in their London clubs. However, an elderly member of my club, who we thought had retired, is now badgering members young and old to open an account with a bank for whom he has become, to put it bluntly, a travelling salesman. This is bad enough, but a few years ago the same man was heard barracking two younger members for talking business. One of the accused asked what he was allowed to discuss and the reply came, 'Fox-hunting and another enjoyable sport which also begins with F!' How do you suggest we put an end to this soliciting?

D.W.D., Lincs.

A. Next time you see this man, steer the conversation so as to give him an opening to make a business overture. When he rises to the bait, respond in confidential tones, 'I'm glad you've said that. I know we're not supposed to discuss business in the club, but I've been wanting to invite you to invest in my new clothing catalogue business. I'm thinking of calling it F and F because of your famous remark, which has entered clubland lore. Shall we have our discussion here and just brazen it out?' It will do no harm for you to mete out a temporary humiliation in this way. Like children, adults prefer boundaries and prefer to be disciplined rather than to see standards being allowed to slide. Even at White's, the chairman recently had to write to members reminding them of the rule about not discussing business.