Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Lady's Guide To Modern Manners: 29 June

It’s not easy knowing how to be polite in the modern world. This week: the rather awkward question of money matters. Thomas Blaikie advises

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,

I don't know if you have been asked this question in the past... anyway, here goes. Acquaintances have wanted to know a few times how much I was paid for a certain job. I am usually thrown by this question and would appreciate your advice as to how to reply in a polite, but firm, manner.

Margaret Gillespie, Lichfield

Dear Margaret,

'Mind your own business.' That's what anyone would have said 50 years ago. These days, it's more complicated. We seem to have different standards of privacy. Taboo is taboo. If you don't want to talk about it, you need to see someone. So we chat away about our financial predicament, good or bad, to people we've just met at parties. Then, all through the anxious boom-time years, a certain amount of boasty-boasty advertising of one's financial status was tolerated if not encouraged, accompanied often by none-toosubtle probing of other people's level of funding.

'How much did you pay for your house?' was the routine opening gambit of some friends on first acquaintance. Any protest and they'd say, 'We'll fi nd out anyway.' And they would. One pleasant side-effect of recession is that it's now quite all right – indeed desirable – to be penniless and squeezed into a non-designer frock. But curiosity about other people's money, and a desire to promote or infl ate one's own value, isn't going to disappear. We're only human, after all.

But a direct enquiry about your earnings is impertinent. Margaret, you could say that your agent deals with pettifogging detail of that kind – regardless of whether you have one. Or that it's being paid off-shore in another currency. Don't worry. You should absolutely strain at the credulity. If they really won't take the hint, and keep nagging, don't bother being polite. Just say, 'I'm not telling you.'

Generally how far can talk about money go? Certainly any direct reference to salary is vulgar, especially if accompanied by mock-modest disclaimers such as, 'They're paying me silly money.' Why not strike back with, 'If it's so silly, perhaps you could give me some of it.' Similarly frightful: 'Hermès is being impossible about mending my handbag, which is a bit much, considering it cost £4,000...' A viable riposte: 'Can't you just buy another?'

On the other hand, discussion of house prices, even if in decline, and enquiries as to where your possessions came from and their cost, are inevitable. There's no avoiding money in the end. All the same, you hope that a rich person, should someone of straitened means enquire after their cardigan, would have the decency to say, 'Prada, but I got it from the factory shop for nothing.' Or, 'I stole it.'

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


WHAT TO DO ABOUT... The newly knighted

What to do, writes Emily Tizzard of Ringwood on behalf of her granddaughter, aged 17, if your best friend's father received a knighthood in the Birthday Honours? Should she curtsey to him? There are often sleepovers at her friend's house, so does this alter the situation?

No, you don't have to curtsey to a Knight. Curtseys are for Royalty and, these days, it's voluntary even with them. Quite a few knights have gained elevation through the Chamber of Commerce, or some similar dreariness, hardly justifying your granddaughter on a sleepover dragging out of her sleeping bag at a moment's notice to pay homage.

All the same, she might wonder what she is to call her friend's father now. An intimate of mine was instructed to be sure to address her neighbour's parents by their titles. This is awfully pompous, especially in a domestic setting. If your granddaughter has always called this new knight by his first name, she should carry on as before. Otherwise, he becomes 'Sir Whatever his first name is...' as in 'Shuralan...' Surely she watches The Apprentice? Americans get it wrong and always called Noël Coward 'Sir Coward'.

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