Social humour

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 | 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

Your problems solved | 31 January 2019

 Q. I am an artist living in the UK and was charmed to be invited by a fellow artist, a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, to join her and her uncle for lunch there. After paying by card, my hostess went to leave some bank notes on the table and I was surprised when her uncle, a distinguished gentleman, told her to put the money away. ‘You never tip in a club,’ he said. I am hoping to join this club myself so would like this protocol confirmed, since I cannot see the logic behind it. — P.E., London SW3   A. In clubland, a member does not tip.

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 | 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

Dear Mary | 25 October 2018

Q. My wife and I have been married for 50 years. The marriage is basically sound but she has recently developed a new maddening habit when we entertain. She waits until I am in the middle of an anecdote or story and then starts proffering plates of vegetables or more wine — this when everyone has already got well-filled glasses and everything on their plate they could possibly want. And of course they then have to say ‘No thank you’. These actions seem timed to sabotage my performances. When I take it up with her she always insists she is just being polite to our guests. — Name and address

Dear Mary | 18 October 2018

Q. My fiancé and I spend many great weekends with another couple. I am a vegetarian and quite particular about certain food textures and I cannot stand slimy foods like overcooked mushrooms or undercooked eggs. The husband of our good friends prides himself on the brunches he rustles up on the Sunday of these weekends, presenting the others with full English breakfasts and me with scrambled eggs on toast. I don’t quite know what he does to these eggs but they appear in front of me in a semi-liquid form, soaking into the toasted bread. I really need to figure out a way to stop this without offending our hosts.

Dear Mary | 11 October 2018

Q. An old friend shares aesthetic sensibilities and tastes in people. Hence we have sustained a highly enjoyable correspondence over some decades. However, having recently had significant professional success, he is no longer fulfilling his side of the bargain. Even 1,000 words from me will now elicit only a perfunctory response. Yet whenever we meet in London he apologises that he is too busy to respond at length and begs me to continue with my own musings, on which he insists he ‘depends’. Mary, how, without seeming querulous, victimy or even ‘queeny’, can I make him see this has become an unfair exchange? — Name and address withheld A. While

Dear Mary | 4 October 2018

Q. I recently gave a jolly dinner for eight friends (some old, some rather famous), all home cooking, ending with petits-fours. The next morning, everything cleared away, husband out for the day, I relaxed by the open French windows, reading (still wearing my long Victorian nightgown). I was startled to see two of the guests smiling in, come to lend a book we’d talked about the night before. The husband, mildly embarrassed, looked out at the garden intently; the wife kept turning the pages of the book they’d brought. Neither showed signs of leaving. I determined to stay sitting comfortably, explained that I had decided to slum it as I


My husband is enjoying Do No Harm, the arresting memoir of the brain surgeon Henry Marsh who was on Desert Island Discs last week. Having confronted the terrible consequences of human error in this alarming speciality, the author mentions the bathetic absurdity of an NHS training presentation by ‘a young man with a background in catering telling me I should develop empathy, keep focused and stay calm’. Empathy is the great thing, it seems. Without it you’re a psychopath; with it you’re the carer we all want. Yet the word has only been in use in English since 1909. Was everybody a pitiless solipsist before that? Empathy translates the German

Dear Mary | 30 August 2018

Q. I invited four younger colleagues, all in their mid to late thirties, to go for a meal at a rather special venue. I first invited A and B, who were sitting together at the time, then C and D, who were also sitting together. On the day, A and C arrived, expressing great enthusiasm and having dressed in their best; B and D simply did not turn up. When I mentioned it later, they breezily replied that they had had other plans. What I don’t understand is that when I gave the invitations out two people accepted and acted accordingly, while two agreed with near-identical wording, but failed to attend

Your problems solved | 9 August 2018

Q. Good friends, who moved away from our city suburb a couple of years ago, retain a pied-à-terre the better to pursue their sensitive professional lives. They are, however, not entitled to parking permits for themselves or their morning visitors, so for some time we have been passing on to them extra parking permits. When they come round to pick up (and pay for) these, we all enjoy a quick glass of wine together. They are intelligent and upstanding and we like them and can’t believe that they can be so insensitive as not to suggest other meetings where we could spend more time together. — Name withheld, London A.

Dear Mary | 12 July 2018

Q. A long-standing friend has an admirer of some means. He has invited her to borrow his fully staffed and equipped yacht and entertain a selection of guests, including myself, while we sail around the Med. I’ve become somewhat addicted to luxury and I’ve been so looking forward to this for weeks. I imagined myself lying on a lounger throughout, but I’ve now heard of a late addition to the line-up. My friend has confused good with good value and has misguidedly invited a man who has been immensely helpful in a professional capacity to some of those who will be on board. But I’ve been in a group with

Your problems solved | 5 July 2018

Q. I’ve accepted an invitation to stay in a small house party in France. My host hasn’t mentioned who else is coming. He is an old friend but he has a number of other male friends, each representing a different facet of his personality. My worry is that, should I arrive to find one of his rather boorish friends there, then my own, very subtle relationship with our host could be rendered surplus to requirements. I could make the analogy of light vs heavy artillery. What should I do if so?— Name and address withheld A. Turn both possible outcomes to your advantage. Should you arrive to find a boor

Dear Mary | 14 June 2018

Q. Is there a tactful way to ask people with whom you’ve been interacting on an almost daily basis over two or more years, what their names are? This couple are neighbours and our dogs play together in the park each week. I wasn’t listening when they first introduced themselves and now I’ve got no way of finding out, as I don’t know any of the other neighbours. Twice in the park friends have come along and introduced themselves to the couple, but they have never volunteered their own names other than saying ‘We’re Tommy’s parents.’ (Tommy being their dog.) What should I do? — Name and address withheld A.

Dear mary

Q. My father has worked pro bono for many years on the advisory board of a certain company with a long established reputation for gentlemanly values. When a new chief executive was appointed, he rang to offer his congratulations and to introduce himself but the assistant who took his call had to ask him to spell his name so she could take a message. When he explained that he was on the board of advisors, the assistant replied that she had no record of him, and she thought the new executive would be ‘getting in his own advisors’. This turns out to have been the case and my father’s telephone