Social humour

Dear Mary | 17 May 2018

Q. I have incurable, inoperable back pain that severely hinders my ability to sit and necessitates my taking a cushion wherever I go. Many, I believe, view this as a sartorial eccentricity. I have two issues: how can I politely — or even humorously — deter people I meet from probing my medical history and offering their own treatment advice (‘Have you tried Pilates?’ ‘You must meet my cranial osteopath!’)? Conversely, a close friend recently dismissed my condition as akin to his bone-idle, sponging girlfriend’s ‘leg problem’ (‘It’s ethereal and comes and goes’). I don’t wish to be a figure of pity, but nor do I want to be seen

Your problems solved | 12 April 2018

Q. We were about to send off to the printers the invitation for our son’s wedding (we agreed to do this bit) but now the prospective in-laws are asking for the use of the word ‘with’, as in ‘You are invited to the marriage of Lady X with Mr Y’. We have noticed that ‘with’ is used in the marriage invitation of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and understand that it conveys the implication that one party (the first named) is socially superior to the other. What should we think? — Name and address withheld A. My most highly placed observer declares that ‘This is a highly royal usage which it

Dear Mary | 5 April 2018

Q. Along with five of my favourite people, I’ve been invited again to what should be an idyllic house party in Scotland this summer. The house, the landscape, the food and the sport could not be better, and our mutual friend is a brilliant host capable of great empathy and wit — 99 per cent of the time. However it is the 1 per cent risk of a glitch that is making me, and the others, wary of accepting. We discover that each one of us has, while staying in this house party, incurred the anger of our host and received a humiliating dressing-down for a very minor misdemeanour. Examples include

Dear Mary | 15 March 2018

Q. How does one avoid power handshakes? Twenty-five years of wicket-keeping have left me with pathetically fragile knuckles, and each greeting (especially from bold young men keen to show just how ‘firm’ their grip is) brings the risk of crunching fingers and cracking bones. The pain can rule out my other hobby — playing keyboards in a band — for a couple of weeks. But it would seem terribly rude to refuse to shake someone’s hand. What do you suggest? — C.F., Hinton Ampner, Hants A. You should sidestep the usual full-hand shake which juxtaposes both ‘handpits’ between thumb and index fingers. Instead deftly grab only the fingertips of the

Dear Mary | 8 March 2018

Q. Recently I held a party at which some people were meeting each other for the first time. One social-climbing couple, who I do not know well and invited only to pay them back for their own recent party, subsequently emailed to ask for the contact details of the most influential and elevated of my acquaintance. I resisted replying, but then they emailed again suggesting that they hold a dinner and invite my social lions, along with my husband and myself. I am feeling somewhat under siege, as well as mildly outraged. But I know that if some friends I knew better (and liked more) had asked for the same

Dear Mary | 22 February 2018

Q. Obviously one is delighted to have visits from close friends and family when one’s spouse is ailing, but how does one politely deter those in what might be called the second division who, mindful of the Bible’s teaching, are intent on visiting the sick, when the sick and his wife would rather be left alone and only wish for supportive emails promising thoughts and prayers? Visitors require feeding and watering, which entails shopping trips and general labour in the form of tidying the house and getting in flowers etc. They need meeting off trains and taking to the station and the whole enterprise causes great stress when one is

Dear Mary | 15 February 2018

Q. We want to invite a rather exceptional friend to dinner. He lives nearby but he has a top job and also travels a lot so we hardly ever see him. More to the point, his wife controls his social diary. Our problem is that the wife has become a tiny bit chippy about her husband’s star status. Since he is a charismatic, life-enhancing, poetry-reciting, anecdotalising, perceptive, well-informed,witty man, he takes centre stage at any gathering. He may sound insufferable but I can assure you his fellow guests are always happy to just sit back and listen. Not unreasonably, his wife would like to occasionally take centre-stage herself. Consequently she

Dear Mary | 8 February 2018

Q. I am at the age where parts of the body start to go wrong, and I have a minor but life-changing issue. I am in the process of telling my friends when I learn that one of them has a much more serious and life-threatening one. Should I mention my own lesser problem to him, and if so, how? I don’t want to belittle his by seeming to compare notes, but I suspect he would wish to know. — J.N., New Malden, Surrey A. Commiserate with your friend about his own condition. Listen to the details. Then give a short laugh and ask, ‘By the way, do you find

Dear Mary | 25 January 2018

Q. Several friends have reached an age and wealth that means they take unreasonably long holidays or even entire gap years. I enjoy being in regular touch with them when they are at home and am sad they will be away for so long. But should one stay in touch? And how, without the intrusive help of Skype and webcams? Some of my acquaintances post Instagram pictures (one or two too often). Is mutual Instagram following a satisfactory way ahead? — B.F., Barnham, West Sussex A. You should resist the urge to maintain your usual levels of dialogue. People go away for many reasons and sun-seeking is only one of

Dear Mary | 11 January 2018

Q. Should the lady or the gentleman have the banquette in a restaurant? I’ve been brought up to believe that the lady has the banquette for her more delicate bottom — and for her handbag. She has the view of the room; the gentleman has only eyes for her. My fiancé says that a modern couple should take it in turns to have the hard chair. Whose bottom takes precedence? — L.F., Bayswater, London A. As with so many cultural traditions, the lady takes the banquette for practical reasons. Not only does it allow access to her handbag and protect her more delicate clothing from spillages, but the lady usually has

Dear Mary | 4 January 2018

Q. At my son’s school the boys keep a clandestine leatherbound book known as ‘The Bible’, a sort of Rogues Gallery which, inter alia, keeps a detailed account of various misdemeanours and advice on how to circumvent school regulations. It is handed down from year to year, and one of my son’s friends was caught with it by his housemaster. The school believes that this kind of insubordination runs against the ethos of the school and have asked for the boy’s father to destroy the book. I think it is a well-written, amusing account of school life that bucks the trend of political correctness and encourages creativity. It is also

Dear Mary | 7 December 2017

Q. My wife and I were having lunch in our local bistro. A boy of about two was wandering around the restaurant and after a while began to scream loudly, with no remonstration by his parents. At this point my wife asked them if they could make the child desist. This brought a diatribe of abuse from the Aussie hipster father. The mother’s response (she was a Mitteleuropean) was that he was only small. Management was reluctant to intervene so what should we have done? — C.H.-T., by email A. The same people who fly off the handle in response to someone trying to ‘boss them about’ will happily obey

Dear Mary | 30 November 2017

Q. We have reached the age when we are receiving invitations from our friends for Golden Wedding celebrations. All the invitations clearly state no presents please. It feels dreadful to arrive without a gift, especially as others have obviously ignored the hosts’ request and arrived with presents. What to do? — M & D., Somerset A. It is annoying for such hosts who quite emphatically ask for no presents. They are not being coy but, at their age, actually feel panic at the thought of new clutter coming into the house. In anticipation of being wrong-footed by fellow guests, contact the hosts before the party to say that under normal

Dear Mary | 19 October 2017

Q. A newish friend who has very good manners lent me a DVD of his grandfather at the Olympics. I forgot to watch it. Now, a year later, he has asked for it back but I can’t find it! It is unique and irreplaceable. I feel rather guilty but did not ask to borrow the DVD and why on earth did he wait a year to ask for it back? — E.S., Sussex A. If the man is old enough to have a grandfather who performed at the Olympics then he is old enough to be able to judge a friend’s ability with chaos control. The fact that he foisted

Dear Mary | 5 October 2017

Q. We have moved from London into a rural area where we are preparing for the first visit of a lifelong friend who has become a self-invented countryman. I know that he will insist on foraging for mushrooms, but none of my family wants to go on kidney dialysis machines as a result of being forced to eat them. None of us (including him) are mushroom experts. Much as we love our friend, he is something of a bully. What should we do Mary? — Name and address withheld A. Buy in a store cupboard supply of dried chanterelles, ceps etc, and rehydrate them prior to his visit. Feign enthusiasm

Dear Mary | 28 September 2017

Q. How can I avoid becoming seen as an ‘Instagram creeper’? My well-meaning niece tells me that I’m in danger of qualifying for this insult. Apparently it means a sort of Peeping Tom who views other people’s postings but never contributes any herself. I joined Instagram a year ago to promote a fundraising event, and it’s true that, though I posted six related images then, I have posted nothing since. But certain friends and acquaintances began following me at that time and so I followed them and now am totally addicted to viewing their indiscreet images of their lunches and holidays and children. I don’t want to post any of my

Dear Mary | 14 September 2017

Q. My partner and I recently had two close friends — one a Peer, the other a former Member of the Scottish Parliament — over for lunch. During the course of an otherwise splendid meal, our friend from the House of Lords took a ten-minute call from a former prime minister, remaining at the table for the duration of the somewhat banal exchange. Should we be honoured to mix in such lofty circles, or should we be offended by such a breach of etiquette? — C.W.H., East Lothian A. This was undoubtedly a breach of etiquette, made worse by the Peer’s assumption that others present would be flattered by being privy

Dear Mary | 7 September 2017

Q. Some rather flashy new neighbours of ours — I won’t mention their names as his will be familiar to a lot of your readers — asked my wife and me to lunch last week in their new barn as a dummy run for the cook they’ve employed for the shooting season. They were very enthusiastic about her cooking, but the steak and kidney pie was served with a perfect circle of puff pastry beside the meat on our plates. We agreed once back in the car and alone again that this was not the form, as a proper shoot lunch would have had it all cooked together. Were we

Dear Mary | 24 August 2017

Q. I am in my seventies and my husband is in his nineties. The other night we had two couples to dinner. However, when they arrived (separately), we both realised we had forgotten their names, so when I brought the second couple into the drawing room I was incapable of introducing everyone to each other — they were meeting for the first time. This set the evening off to a terrible start, but our memory failure was no reflection of our affection for our guests or of our general brain power. Mary, what would you have done in these circumstances? — Name and address withheld A. When the second couple arrived,

Dear Mary | 3 August 2017

Q. I’m shortly to host a very large family gathering. Everyone will be related to the same ancestor, so we will have at least one subject to talk about — but then what? We will be a disparate group, hailing from different places, professions, generations and walks of life, and with nothing much in common apart from our lineage. Most of us will not have met before. I am worried that the conversation will run dry as we cannot bang on about our ancestor for three full days. —Name and address withheld A. I note you live within driving distance of Bishop Auckland, so during August you can give your