Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Lady Guide To Modern Manners: 17 August

It’s not always easy knowing how to be polite in the modern world. This week: Staff canteen problems – whom to have lunch with at work…

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,

For years I've been having lunch at work with two colleagues, but recently one of them has started doing aerobics at lunchtime and I'm left with the other one. We don't get on. We both struggle for conversation and if I do think of something to say, I then can't be bothered to say it as I either get no response, or she starts criticising me. I have recently felt like throwing a beaker of water in her face at the table. Not long ago, I tried sitting with another friend on a separate table, but she came over and said, 'I don't bite, you know!' I sometimes wonder if it's her birth defect of having one leg shorter than the other that makes her so chippy. I dread the lunch hour and having to sit with this boring, aggressive woman. I do hope you can help.

Barbara Stratton, Birmingham

Dear Barbara,

I can sense your desperation. I'll come on to the more general issue of who to have lunch with at work in a minute. We've all had anxious moments hovering with our trays wondering – should I sit with the management or next to Maureen, who I can't stand? Will anyone ask me to sit with them?

Barbara, I wonder whether the boiling rage you fear may explode may not be more to do with the frustration building up from dread that you might hurt your lunchtime tormentor, who does sound vulnerable and needy.

So it's the right instinct and the essence of good manners to want to dissolve conflict, avoid distress and behave with restraint. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

I would try talking to her (easier said than done), perhaps starting off by suggesting that as she doesn't seem to like you, is always hostile etc, why does she want to have lunch with you? Then move on to asking her what she thinks it's like for you to be on the receiving end of her criticism.

Try to be gentle, avoid saying 'You're a rude woman'. Focus on how she treats you. Don't condemn her as a person. But be quite firm in saying that it would be better if you didn't have lunch together, at least for a while.

Otherwise in the staff canteen don't sit with management if there's space elsewhere. It looks like crawling. If the only seat left is at the management table, they should put themselves out to offer it to you (but will they?).

Sit with solitary lunchers and encourage those hanging about not sure who to sit with to join your group. If possible, for your own dignity, avoid hanging about. Stride straight to your chosen place. Sometimes, owing to pressure of work, you may have to leave someone to finish their lunch on their own. If so, do apologise. Don't just slope off.

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


WHAT TO DO... If you're on a cruise

Following my recent suggestion that the etiquette of cruising is that you've got to join in, I've had a number of irate letters.

Carole Harvey writes from Surrey: 'The last thing we (and most other passengers) want is to swap addresses with strangers, possibly a long distance away, and make arrangements to meet up... Nobody makes you do anything. 'Freedom' dining is now popular, where you can go to an onboard restaurant when you choose, ask for a table for two, or you can share. If you opt to share, the chances of getting the same table mates twice is minimal.'

Jean Jackson, of Ludlow, in her 90s, recalls gracious P&O cruises in the 1970s when, 'other passengers were friendly, but not overwhelmingly so'. More recently, she understands, the atmosphere on board has come to resemble a holiday camp.

In my own wretched experience, I know of significantly more friendships formed on cruises than on any other kind of holiday. Can we at least agree that a fortnight in a large piece of metal with thousands of other people is a more sociable form of vacation than trekking across the Gobi Desert?

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