Mary Killen

Your Problems Solved | 9 July 2005

Etiquette advice from The Spectator's Miss Manners

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Dear Mary...

Q. Our son and his fiancée are getting married in Pretoria, South Africa, later this year, although they both live in London, where they have their established home. They would prefer guests not to give them presents they would be unable to cope with in their small flat in Pretoria, and shipping gifts back from RSA would prove especially problematic and costly. How can they say politely and nicely, without offence, that they would prefer financial gifts to help with the proposed refurbishment of their kitchen rather than ‘another toaster’? I know you will know what to do, Mary.

M.E., Cyprus

A. Practical though the suggestion may be, many wedding guests will bridle if asked to hand over cash rather than a present. It’s the unsubtlety they resent. Instead, your son should set up a wedding list at his nearest English branch of, for example, John Lewis. He and his fiancée can visit the store and go about ‘scanning in’ the items they favour. Guests can then access the John Lewis website from all points of the globe and pay online, either for an item specified or, if they wish, they can just buy a gift voucher for any sum they choose. Some of them will far prefer to do this — as long as they have not been ordered to do so. There is no such thing as a surfeit of John Lewis vouchers. All these goods will then be delivered, free of charge, to their English home. The list stays open for eight weeks and the couple should send out details with their wedding invitations of how to log on to it.

Q. My wife and I regularly attend the cinema. There have been occasions when we see seats in the middle of the rows. The seats near the aisles are taken, necessitating us moving past people already seated to get to the vacant seats. On these occasions, is it more appropriate when moving past seated people to present one’s front side or one’s back side? Is the rule the same for men and women, or if someone is a bit more stout than others?

M. and K.M., Queensland, Australia

A. The rule is the same for both men, women and the stout. Presenting your frontal aspect is undesirable — not only because of the brief simulation of coition, but also because of the extra intimacy occasioned by your breathing on the strangers as you thank them for making way for you. The correct procedure is to move erectly down the row with your back to those you are inconveniencing, but with your head at an angle of 90 degrees so you can acknowledge their courtesy as you pass along.

Q. Two people have written to you and asserted that rectors and vicars have equal status and have tried to back up their argument using only the vulgar modern yardstick of money. In fact, the two letters disclose that, historically, a vicar has been paid an income, whereas a rector enjoyed an income from land. It is this fact and not the amount of the income that determines their relative social status. A vicar was a mere paid functionary; a rector held a position in society more akin to that of the landed gentry. Your rectory-dwelling informant did not mislead you. Anyone purchasing a rectory rather than a vicarage can feel assured that the rectory has the greater cachet.

H.T., by email

A. Thank you for adding this point to the debate.