Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 23 November

Thomas Blaikie advises on questions not to ask in polite conversation, such as ‘Where do you come from?’

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas, I am in my mid-50s and was adopted as a young child. I know nothing about my birth parents other than that my mother was white British but my father was, from my appearance, either African or Asian.

What I find hard to stomach is complete strangers asking me in the first breath, ‘Where do you come from?’ I either say, ‘I’m British like you’; ‘does it matter?’ or I tell them I don’t know and watch them squirm.

Please could you advise me on how to answer them? I would not dream of asking someone in such a blunt way on first meeting.
Beryl Webster, Newcastle

Dear Beryl,

I quite understand your distress at being asked where you are from on first meeting. This question absolutely must not be asked, especially of someone whose appearance suggests they might be of an ethnic origin other than British – I worry that even this is an offensive way of putting it. The implication of the enquiry, whether intended or not, is all too obvious: ‘You can’t be British, like me. You don’t really belong.’ In your case, the questioner is also barging into painful territory, since you were adopted.

It may be some comfort to know that you don’t have to be of non-British ethnic origin to come in for this treatment. I’m always being asked where I’m from on account of my voice. The suggestion is that there’s something odd about it or that the questioner ignorantly assumes that everybody has a regional accent. As far as I’m concerned, I display BBC-received pronunciation of about 70 years ago, although I’m only 55. The Queen, of course, is from Windsor and most people in the Windsor neighbourhood speak like her.

On the other hand, ‘Where are you from?’, however it might appear, doesn’t have to be a malignant or racist question. Someone might think they’re just taking a friendly interest. They may come from a ‘white-only’ part of the country. They may just be inept or ignorant, rather than bad. Perhaps it’s a little harsh to give them a prickly, hostile answer. Perhaps, particularly for social smoothness, you could respond as if they’d asked you where you live.

I’m against direct questions altogether. As you say, ‘Where are you from?’ is too blunt. Much better to ask questions only requiring ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Don’t demand information. Let people decide what they want to tell you.

But there’s nothing wrong with being curious about our fellow human beings. If you say, ‘Were you brought up round here?’, a person might choose to divulge quite a lot about themselves or nothing at all. Some people like talking about their background, ancestry and so on; others don’t. It’s a sensitive area. Tread carefully.

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

WHAT TO DO IF… your guests don’t eat fish

You might think this is etiquette madness gone mad, but Miss Bettie Trowbridge writes from Surrey in distress. She particularly wishes to impress her guests by inviting them to dinner, since she is hoping to marry their son, but how can she, if they don’t eat fish? There will be no fish course at dinner and they will think that she doesn’t eat properly. There must be a fi sh course, come what may – have you heard this?

There are two possible approaches here: revive one of those wartime dishes that have fish names but aren’t fi sh. ‘Mock crab’, for instance. Lobster à la Riseholme, as fans of Mapp and Lucia, from EF Benson’s novels, will know, can be very successfully presented during times of national crisis and shortage, with turnip standing in for lobster.

Or Miss Trowbridge could fi nd a fish dish that doesn’t have a fish name, such as Bombay duck. But she fears this deception, if uncovered, could cause irrevocable offence.

Her own solution, not wishing to single out the fish refusers with specially prepared alternatives, is to offer to all guests a choice of fish or game when the dinner reaches the fish-course stage.

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