Modern manners

Why am I so angry?

Last week, walking into a branch of Waterstones in south London, I made way (or so I thought) for a pixie-faced man in Lycra who was theatrically hauling his bike into the shop. It seemed a bit of a liberty, but these days cyclists are godly folk who can do anything they like, especially in the eco-obsessed puritan commonwealths south of the river. Then a querulous voice piped up behind me. ‘Excuse me! You just pushed past me and my bike.’ I think it was the ‘and my bike’ that did it. Pixie Face headed for Waterstones’ mandatory display of anti-racist memoirs, bleating about ‘manners’ while caressing his affronted vehicle.

Dear Mary: Should I give my postman a Christmas present?

Q. I am extremely fond of an artist friend, despite the fact that I have never liked her work or bought any of it. I always had the excuse that it was too big for my house. Unfortunately she has given me an early Christmas present of one of her smaller paintings, about 2ft square, and clearly expects me to hang it where it can be seen by all. Mary, it is not to my taste but I do not want to undermine her fragile self-confidence by not hanging it. What is the solution? — Name and address withheld A. Take the painting to a framer and ask that a

Save me from the cult of instant intimacy

The other day I made a couple of calls to a bank about a loan. After the usual jumping over hoops to get to talk to a human being — the failure of voice-activated systems to understand a word I say, even when it’s the word ‘loan’, is particularly wounding — I got through to a young man who passed me on to a young woman. In both cases the answer to my actual query was no; they ended the call with ‘Have a good one’ and ‘You take care now’. To which all you can say, a bit lamely, is: ‘You too!’ Whenever someone tells me to have a

First names are for friends and family, not bosses and builders

Recently I was listening to Lieutenant-General Tyrone Urch, the army’s Commander Home Command, being interviewed by Martha Kearney on Today. I cannot remember what he was talking about, because I had become quite agitated by the officer’s insistence on using Ms Kearney’s name in every response: ‘Good morning, Martha… It absolutely is, Martha… The things the military is able to do, Martha… I’m no biochemist, Martha…’ On and on it went, this patronising and repeated use of the interviewer’s name. But what rankled more than the repetition was that Lieutenant-General Urch was using Ms Kearney’s first name. Did Ms Kearney tell Lieutenant-General Urch that it was all right for him

The terror of choosing the wrong email sign off

Just now, I wrote an email and I couldn’t for the life of me think how to sign it off. ‘Kind regards’, the default setting for most messages, felt a bit too formal, given I am on friendly terms with the recipient; he’s older than me and a priest. ‘Yours ever’ seems forward. ‘Best wishes’ is fine for strangers but may be stilted for someone you know quite well. ‘M’, my most frequent sign-off, would look downright rude. An ‘X’ was out of the question. So plain ‘Melanie’ it was. But I was left wondering which of the range of options I should have gone for, each suggestive of a

The politics of email sign-offs

I think Anne Applebaum is a friend of mine. I certainly hope so, since I have always admired her writing, her dignified charm and her un-English readiness to be serious. Her new book Twilight of Democracy is subtitled ‘The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’. Quite a large number of friends, several associated (as was she) with this paper, she now names as ex-friends, so I feel relieved not to have been so identified. As a matter of historical fact, Anne is right: lots of friends have fallen out about issues relating to globalisation, identity, ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’, Brexit, Trump etc. Anne seems to see this as inevitable, once

Dear Mary: What should I do about a Lib Dem friend who can no longer take a joke?

Q. I sent a WhatsApp message to a Lib Dem friend of 15 years. ‘How are you finding being a Lib Dem? I must say a £50 billion Remain dividend would be rather nice — perhaps something to put on the side of a bus so I can prosecute your leader when it never happens! Clearly, Boris is the only contender for PM.’ This message was intended to be provocatively humorous and I expected a witty and combative reply in return. Instead she has told me she can’t understand why I would ‘swipe’ at her like this. Should I try to explain that I was joking, or accept she is now so woke

Dear Mary: how can I stop my dad treating my mum like a slave?

Q. Dad takes an old-fashioned approach to marriage: I have never seen him clear his plate and he does not know what’s in the kitchen cupboards. He also enjoys the benefits of a modern wife: my mother has worked (much) harder than him in their business for a long time and takes a lot of responsibility off him, although his name is on everything. There is no question of their love for each other but today, in the middle of discussing an important and stressful matter, he cut her off with ‘I’ll have my lunch when you’re ready’. Anything he doesn’t want to discuss is curtailed with ‘Can I have

Dear Mary: How can my son tell if his cleaner is stealing from him?

Q. What is your view on emailed vs handwritten thank-yous? During my recent travels around pre-Brexit Europe I stayed in a dreamy house in the south of France. It was a little taste of paradise. Our host was Anglo-Scots but, since she is highly peripatetic, I asked her to which address I should send my thank-you letter. She replied: ‘Just email me.’ Surely this can’t be right, Mary? This was more than a chatty house party. On the other hand, my host is now travelling around pre-Brexit Europe herself and it may be some months till she gets back to either of her UK bases. Every day that I don’t

How did my children become more middle class than me?

In a café in Norfolk last week, my seven-year-old son uttered words that mortified me. No, he didn’t comment loudly on someone’s weight, or ask why the lady next to us had a moustache. It was worse than that. Asked by a kindly man at the next table if he was enjoying his bacon sandwich, he declared to the café at large: ‘Yes, but I prefer them with rocket!’ Judging by the gentleman’s slightly blank smile, I’m not sure if he even knew what rocket was, let alone that in the London suburb where I live, it’s now as much a part of breakfast as smashed avocado on toast. Inwardly,

For the love of dog

The picture on the front of the Animal Blessing Service programme featured a dog, a cat, a rabbit, a goldfish, a cockatoo, a hamster, a snake and a ferret. In the event, the congregation was confined to people and dogs, including my two cockers. We sat in a circle in the shady courtyard of St James’s Church, Piccadilly as the Reverend Lindsay Meader, resplendent in a rainbow stole, led us in prayer. If a passing tourist wanted to understand British people and their animals, they had come to the right place. A few sightseers did wander into the square and watch for a while. St James’s is a dog-friendly church

Dear Mary | 2 May 2019

Q. A university friend and I want to get an invitation to a very good shoot owned by a colleague of my father. To this end we thought we could make better friends by inviting him to my club for lunch or dinner. This club is the sort of stuffy, traditional place he would approve of. I was only able to become a member because they had a special five-year deal for people who joined it the year they left school. The problem is that, as the member, I am the only one allowed to pay. How can I make sure that my friend, who is vague and disorganised, pays

Dear Mary | 7 March 2019

Q. I run a very small mail-order company from home. Recently I received an exceptionally rude email from a disgruntled customer. On discovering that the problems arising were her own fault, I sent a polite email proving this. Her response was even ruder. I know this woman socially and she obviously doesn’t realise I am the owner of the company. She would be mortified to realise I know about this ‘fishwife’ side of her character, but of course she inevitably will find out if she continues to escalate things. I would not want to humiliate her so how should I handle this? — Name and address withheld A. Write to her

Dear Mary | 21 February 2019

Q. I have given up drink except on certain occasions when it would be really rude to refuse. What’s the best way of telling kind hosts at parties that you’re not drinking, without causing their faces to drop with disappointment? I’ve tried accepting a glass and then not drinking it, but that means a wasted glass for the host. — F.R., Suffolk A. The disappointment swiftly evaporates when you flourish a can of something which looks exactly like alcohol, such as Pils Infinite Session craft lager (0.5 per cent), which you have brought with you. As long as you are faux-mirroring your fellow socialisers by drinking what looks like alcohol,

Your problems solved | 10 January 2019

Q. What is the current etiquette regarding chasing an opinion from a publisher to whom, by agreement and via a shared acquaintance, I submitted a manuscript six weeks ago? Other than acknowledgement of receipt and an expression of enthusiasm at the prospect of reading it, I have heard nothing further from her. I am aware that the days when a rejection would take the form of an encouraging lunch and, at worst, a rejection slip have long gone. But what is the digital equivalent of a rejection slip for today’s writer? Must I assume that if, after three months, I hear nothing, the answer is no? How will I know

Dear Mary | 13 December 2018

From Michael Fabricant MP Q. When I go for intimate meals at a restaurant with a friend, I am invariably asked by other diners for a selfie or have embarrassing questions about my hairstyle directed at me. How can I turn these down — particularly the latter — while not seeming churlish? A. Confuse the applicants by saying you’ve promised yourself you’ll stop talking about your hair. And you’re asking everyone who wants a selfie for a £10 donation to the party. As the coffers fill, you can conflate the stress of these impertinences with a good cause. Soon your frown will turn upside down. From Anthony Horowitz Q. All year

Dear Mary | 6 December 2018

Q. A friend and I are giving a combined Christmas drinks party for 120 people. It’s being held at her house so I don’t feel I have the same leverage as if we were hiring somewhere. Unfortunately she has a very glamorous son and insists that he and some fellow students will make fantastic waiters (at £10 per hour each). These ‘waiters’ will know many of the guests socially and will keep stopping to chat as though they were of equal status rather than servants for the night. Food and drink will not be circulated properly and the front door will be left unattended. I don’t want to fall out

Dear Mary | 29 November 2018

Q. May I pass on a tip to anyone facing large family house parties at Christmas? I always used to find Christmas exhausting as we are joined by approximately 14 children and grandchildren every year for lunch and dinner over five days. Last year, however, my son devised a rota system. He drew up the rota and paired up individuals so that each pair took on the full responsibility for a lunch or dinner, including menu planning, shopping, cooking and washing up. It was great fun and the element of competition meant that the standards were ridiculously high as well. — L.G., Fosbury, Wiltshire A. Thank you for sharing this

Dear Mary | 8 November 2018

Q. At every drinks party one will be in mid-conversation with another guest and someone will walk over and loiter briefly. If I know the new arrival I will introduce them, and if not I will introduce both of us, and describe what we are discussing so the new person can join in. But I am bored by people who arrive and merely say to me or the other guest something like, ‘Oh I saw Milo in Scotland last week’, ending the original discussion and cutting out one of the original guests. — G.F., Gasper, Wiltshire A. Most people make this mistake out of nerves and are perfectly happy with

I am black – get over it

As someone who has recently discovered he is black, I have watched with incredulity the treatment doled out by the white liberal media to the theatre director Anthony Ekundayo Lennon. Like me, Anthony has shoved a name which sounds a bit exotic between his Christian name and his surname in order to convince people he is black. He has also said that while he does not have any African genes whatsoever, he feels black. That’s good enough for me, and it has proved good enough for organisations which bung people large sums of money on account of their skin colour — or what the individuals, on a whim, deem their