Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 16 November

The art of declining an invitation politely may have fallen by the wayside, but do give your guests a second chance

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
With a certain amount of trepidation I invited a new acquaintance to dinner. She said, ‘No, can’t make it.’ Am I right to take offence? Should I dare to try to fi nd another date?
Emma Nugent, Newport

Dear Emma,
I’d certainly take offence but people have told me I’m oversensitive. Of course some with tough, rubbery skin wouldn’t care less. But isn’t it the Rolls-Royce of good manners to assume that others have delicate, thin skin? What’s more, I’m quite sure most people do have thin skin, but pretend otherwise.

You are anxious about inviting this person. I suspect many invitations are similarly offered with a tremble. Will they really want to come? We’re so dull, etc. So an apparently snubbing response is dismaying.

Unless someone really has reason to believe that they are being asked for a sinister, manipulative purpose, that poison or forced marriage is in the air, any invitation is surely a generous gesture and must be handsomely thanked for. ‘Thank you so much for asking me. That’s very kind.’ If you can’t go you should always explain why. Some of the old school claim the opposite, that you should never explain. Stuffy. Don’t just say, ‘I’ve got something else on.’ Say what it is.

Should you persist and reinvite? As we’ve so often found in affairs of manners, there’s a gap between cause and effect. A person may seem to us to be vilely rude but they might not have meant to be. Their curtness may have been uncharacteristic. Give them a chance. So, yes, re-invite. Furthermore, I suggest that you take the ‘Let’s fi nd a date’ approach, ie, go on hunting for a possible date until you fi nd one. This may come across as bossy or even terrifying, especially if there is an ice-cold axe in your voice (which may just be nerves). If you’re jolly and joshing and really want them to come, I think people rather like to know that someone’s in charge and is going to make something happen.

Unfortunately, there are those who just don’t want to go. You should be sensitive if inviting. Telltale signs are: grim, blatant lack of enthusiasm, failure to suggest alternative dates, failure to explain why suggested dates are no good. I’ve little sympathy with the ‘don’t want to gos’. There’s something dismal and life-denying, like people who are fussy about food. Often, also, a depressing English thing: we don’t want to get involved, we won’t be able to ask them back.

I say: you’re jolly lucky to get any invitations at all, however ghastly the nature. Be grateful. It’s not compulsory to become lifelong friends. Why not have a fascinating evening with some utterly horrific people? Life’s rich tapestry.

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

WHAT TO DO… if people say: ‘Call me what you like’

You’ve probably heard that The Scout Association has banned nicknames, sprouting a million column inches. It might have been more practical to say, ‘Make up your mind what your name is and stick to it.’

A lot of people, on introduction, say, ‘I’m Cath, but my friends call me Yogurt Pot.’ Or, ‘I’m Timothy but I answer to Timmy or Felix.’

The modern dread of appearing anything other than manically friendly is at the bottom of it. But what’s wrong with a touch of formality when you don’t know people? If you have a nickname or some crazy abbreviation of your name, which only your closest friends use, why not keep that for later, should friendship develop?

It is also tactful not to parade someone’s nickname or even fi rst name in certain circs in front of those who might not be privy to it. I didn’t like it when cabinet ministers started referring to each other in public as ‘Tony’ and ‘David’.

Otherwise, people claim their name is too diffi cult to pronounce and permit it to be mangled beyond recognition. While it might be unwise to insist on the precise Bengali infl ection, many of us could do a lot better.

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