Friday, 13 April 2012

The Lady's guide to Modern Manners 23rd

It’s not easy knowing how to be polite in the modern world. Other people’s pets, for instance: what if they behave badly? Thomas Blaikie advises

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,

I was having a drink with some friends last week and their dog, a collie, chewed my handbag. When I picked it up, the handles were bitten right through. But my friends just said, 'Why didn't you notice?' To be honest, I'm not that keen on pets, but I do try! What do you suggest?

Olive Johnston, Surrey

Dear Olive,

modern-manFirst of all, perhaps your friends were being defensive, even if unhelpful. Can you forgive them? Maybe a new handbag will be winging its guilty way towards you very soon.

Pets provide opportunities for bonding, even if you're not a wild enthusiast. In parks these days I've taken to saying 'What a lovely dog' to any passing owner. Stroking your hosts' creature or even throwing sticks, if that's what it likes, will give pleasure to its human masters as well. If you don't want to touch the beast, at least seize the conversational opportunities: 'What breed?' 'How old?' and so on.

On the other hand, never be 'helpful' by feeding other people's pets, taking them for walks or teaching them new tricks, without asking first. You may be interfering with a carefully built-up regime. A small dog on a person's lap at the table, being offered tidbits is another matter. It's just not nice. But what to do without causing a scene? Frantically we scrabble for some indirect method. Bertie Wooster always had aniseed to hand and laid a false trail, with disastrous results. Don't try that. You could say, 'Is this how you get Priscilla off to sleep? Then you put her in her basket...' (use rising intonation manically here).

Readers, please do write in with your own suggestions.

Allergy sufferers should warn in advance if you think there might be pets. Owners are usually obliging about getting their creatures out of the way but some symptoms are inevitable where pets have been. Perhaps you can endure the odd sneeze? Don't forget to condole on the death of  a pet, either by email or letter; only text if the passing was announced by text. Don't say, 'You can always get another.'

Pet-owners: I hope you're not feeling alienated or uniquely got at. In my experience you are usually sensitive to the possibility that others may not want to be licked by your poodle. But, remember how Princess Anne's bull terrier killed one of the Queen's corgis at Sandringham in 2003? These attacks, usually guest dogs going for the host's pets, occur frequently. It always seems to be on arrival. The dog bounds out of the car and before you know it, disaster has struck. Do be careful. If you want to take your pet to someone else's house, you should always ask. Let's hope the answer is always yes.

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

WHAT TO DO ABOUT... Being left out

  • 'Heartfelt Heather' from Wales writes to say hostesses have her marked down as a stalker. Some readers may be mystified but many dinner-party givers believe passionately in equal numbers of men and women. No room for a 'spare' woman (or man for that matter).
  • If nobody asks you, why not strike back with dinner parties of your own? Be bold. Invite whoever you like. Too bad if there are more men than women, or vice versa.
  • Try not to worry about the catering. Choose dishes you can make in advance and reheat. Food need not be fancy, just good to eat.
  • Ask a male guest to open the wine if you can't manage.
  • When women on their own are actually asked out, they might not like to make a solo entrance, especially at a large function. A widow of my acquaintance is very clever at rooting out fellow guests and getting them to accompany her. Once she's arrived – launched, as it were – she can hold her end up with the best of them.
  • Alternatively, there is the fall-back position of joining a club with mixed membership. Most go alone and the idea is to mingle. They often work, and dinner invitations usually follow.

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