Friday, 02 September 2016

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 2 September

A reader’s delightful verse about giftgiving inspires our own

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,

One of your correspondents recently described her inability to find a suitable present for her gentleman friend that he might like and want to use (Modern Manners, 22 July issue). This sentiment chimes entirely with my own unsuccessful quests all through the years to find anything that ever entirely delighted my husband.

Two years ago a light bulb went on in my head and I penned him the following verse:

You don’t wear the Coat I so carefully bought
Nor that rather nice Jacket – I gave it such thought.
Hardback, whatever, you don’t read the Books –
Shirts, Pens even Cuff Links –
barely given two looks.
Your favourite Sweets don’t merit one bite.
Straight into the cupboard where they stay out of sight.
Am left with just Whisky, the easiest of buys
Puts me into the crowd with the rest of the Guys.
Wait, now… what about… Afternoon tea?
A table for two – something’s in it for me.
So that’s what I’ll do – no more striking deals
Forever in future – we’ll go out for Meals.

Could culinary delights be the answer for your frustrated reader? They work for us – no ribbons or wrapping paper either.
Patricia West, Great Yarmouth

Dear Patricia,

This is inspired. What a delightful poem and what a stroke of genius in solving the problem of what to buy for the men in one’s life. I like the modern touch of women being ‘guys’. I know I’ve complained about this in the past, but here it’s just right.

Some might carp at manners and etiquette: isn’t it just too trivial? Failing to find the right present may not be an earth-shattering setback, but it’s a gritty irritant you would rather be without. You also highlight how fixed our thinking becomes. This is so true. A present must be something that you can wrap up and physically give to someone. I was stuck with this idea when trying to solve the reader’s problem in my column. In retrospect it’s so obvious: why can’t a present be an outing or afternoon tea or dinner? Yet, as you say, it takes years to see the light.

The downside might be, unless you’re living in the same house, that it’s difficult to find a ‘window’ in which the treat can take place. So you must be organised and make sure it happens. Plan well in advance. Other possibilities might include theatre or cinema outings, visits to gardens or stately homes, health spa ‘pampering days’ or special one-off events you hear about. I took a friend for his 60th birthday on a tour of Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames, which happened to be open on the exact day – normally trains pass through it. It’s still in use.

Please send your questions to thomas. or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER


Is politeness a problem? I’m sure you’re thinking… what on earth? The other day I was on the phone to my insurance company, not in the best of moods. ‘How are you?’ the assistant asked. ‘Very well, thank you,’ I replied. ‘I’m fine, thank you,’ she then said. But I hadn’t asked how she was. Possibly she was reading from a script but it felt like a rebuke. So the problem is: if in a commercial situation a shop assistant asks you how you are, should you ask after them too?

If they just said, ‘Good morning…’ or ‘afternoon’, you wouldn’t think twice about it. You’d say, ‘Good morning’ back. But ‘How are you?’ seems to belong to a different kind of discourse, one where further conversation is going to occur in a social setting. All the same, it’s mean, I suppose, not to ask after them if they’ve asked after you, although it seems laborious if you’re just flashing past at the checkout. But really it’s a bit too much politeness. ‘Hello’ or ‘Good afternoon’ is quite sufficient at the till or when answering the phone at an insurance company.

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