Mary Killen

Your problems solved | 8 November 2003

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. I have a pressing question. Although I am as addicted to my mobile as anyone else, I do try to keep conversations in public to a minimum. But I have noticed that on London buses there is a very plague of incessant chatterers. These people always seem to shriek as long and loudly as possible, and invariably in a tongue which sounds, to my terribly untutored ears, like duelling magpies. What can one do? The only thing I have been able to think of is to go up and say, ‘I am a doctor and can tell from the sound of your voice that you may have early signs of sublingual metataxis. I would advise you to rest your voice immediately and see a throat specialist as soon as possible.’ The problem is, I don’t in the least look like a doctor, and am afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face. I might also be asked for a referral, which I would be unable to give. It is also possible that the person might not understand English. Can you recommend a foolproof method for dealing with these noisy persons?

B.T., by email

A. Mobile telephones have made all our lives more nasty, brutal and probably also shorter. They are one of the great plagues of our age, along with headlice, and both plagues are out of control. The only course is to turn the situation to your advantage by simply assuming there will be this sort of public nuisance on any overground transport and arriving prepared for it with a set of sonic valve earplugs (£18 from Holland & Holland). In this way you will be able to concentrate even more fully on your reading matter, or even drift off into total reverie. Meanwhile, you can paraphrase Oscar Wilde: ‘We are all surrounded by cacophony but some of us are enjoying our private thoughts.’

Q. My wife and I invited a friend to dinner along with another mutual friend. He told this fourth party that he could not ‘hack’ the journey to Streatham, where we live, suggesting that we meet instead at an expensive Mayfair restaurant. ‘I’ll take everyone out,’ he told her. This delighted us, since we could not afford this restaurant otherwise. Since I have an ‘in’ there, through business, I was asked to book the table. Consequently the bill was presented to me, and my friend, telling a long anecdote, seemed oblivious. Finally I flung my credit card on to the table hoping he would at least throw in his own and pay half, but the waiter picked up the card and took it away. As I was signing our friend cried, ‘Oh my dear. You’ve paid! You shouldn’t have done! But thank you.’ What should I have done, Mary? I know this man is not mean, just super-rich and oblivious to the problems of those who are not.

Name and address withheld

A. You should have replied, ‘Oh my goodness, you are quite right, I shouldn’t have done. How rude of me. This was your treat. Don’t worry. I insist that you pay.’ And then called the waiter back.