Thursday, 03 May 2012

Modern manners: sickliness

It’s not easy knowing how to be polite in the modern world. This week: how do you behave when someone is ill?

Written by Thomas Blaikie

Dear Thomas,

I’m not sure if this has anything to do with manners, but here goes. Recently quite a few friends have had serious illnesses. I’ve read such a lot in the papers about how you shouldn’t do this or say that to very sick people, which has made me paranoid about putting my foot in it. Do you have any advice?

Beth Murdo, Lossiemouth

Dear Beth,

Yes, I do think this is to do with manners, especially if a friend, but not a close friend, falls ill. Some people behave in the most bizarre and out of control fashion in these circumstances, ghoulishly imposing at the bedside of someone they hardly know for instance, saying all kinds of wild things. So if manners are about self-restraint and consideration, then maybe they’re just what’s needed to guide us through fraught times.

You might feel you’re walking on eggshells, but try not to be paranoid. Let’s hope a sick person won’t hold a lone unfortunate remark against you. Persistent insensitivity is another matter. On first hearing the news, keep calm and avoid drama. A victim of illness will fi nd this more reassuring than you raving on about what a catastrophe it all is and how desperately you feel for them. Worst of all is any hint of how awful it is for you. For goodness sake, they’re not dead yet! Don’t let your own fear of illness and death take over.

You must say something but keep it simple and brief: ‘I’m sorry to hear your news… I’m thinking of you…’ Remember, in real life, nobody ‘battles’ against illness. They receive often unpleasant treatment, which hopefully works. Don’t say: ‘You can fight this.’ You’re just adding a burden.

Later on, gauge carefully what the victim of illness wants to talk about. Perhaps they’d rather be cheered up and amused and given a sense that life goes on. Have the conversation you’d normally have, in other words. Unless otherwise indicated, limit discussions of the condition to the practical: have you seen the consultant? How long is treatment likely to last?

Don’t lie: some people are compelled to tell a desperately sick person that they look wonderful. But don’t speak the truth either. Best to avoid the subject of appearance altogether.

Offers of help/visits: be careful not to inundate. Find out what others are doing. Don’t insist on anything. You might have to accept that you’re not wanted. Avoid competing to win the Florence Nightingale stakes. It may be a cliché but it’s fine to say, ‘Please tell me if I can help.’ You’re not demanding that the poorly person wracks their brains to think of tasks for you. Only take the initiative if very sure of your ground. Not everyone, however enfeebled, will be thrilled to find their kitchen cleaned or their fridge stocked up.

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

What to do about... Breaking something

What to do if you break your hosts’ treasured possessions? By accident, of course. Someone I know took his new partner to meet his parents who’d got out a priceless dessert service in celebration. You can imagine what happened, can’t you? Glasses, however, are always getting broken and if there’s a new carpet in the palest veal shade, red wine will surely be spilt all over it.

Now that guests don’t smoke indoors and burn holes in the furniture (undoubtedly their fault) it’s possible, for once, to be deliciously straightforward. If your valuables are so valuable that the thought of the slightest chip is the end of the world, then go and live in a museum – or at least keep them safely in the cupboard.

Otherwise if you choose to actually use your Minton and your Waterford or to have precious items on display where they might just get knocked over, you have no choice but to accept the risk. A guest who damages something is never to be blamed. They might offer to pay but you must absolutely refuse. Just say, ‘It’s only a possession. What does it matter?’

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