Monday, 30 November -0001

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 10 July

Should we be nice to people we don’t like or can we show a disagreeable side? A courteous Thomas Blaikie explains

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
If I don’t like someone I always feel guilty. To compensate I’m incredibly nice to them and before I know it, they think I’m their best friend. What shall I do?
Claire Mulholland, Tring

Dear Claire,
What an intriguing problem and one I’m sure many of us are familiar with. Who does not wish to be nice, even or perhaps especially to those we dislike? How can it be wrong to conceal disagreeable feelings?

We also perhaps seek to defend ourselves against the retaliation that would be inevitable if our hostility were to become known. For overt antagonism will always be met with the same. But I’m curious about this business of ‘liking’ people or not. Is this really such a fixed thing? Even our closest friends we don’t always like. There are waves of annoyance, followed by others of pleasure and appreciation. Nobody, in truth, is wholly likeable. Or wholly unlikeable on the whole.

It could be that the source of your guilt is that you tend to take against people in a rather narrow, judgemental way. Some enjoy making an unwholesome sport of condemning their fellow human beings rather as others relish writing withering reviews of harmless little hospitality outfits on TripAdvisor. Really they’re just trying to make themselves feel safe but they’re unlikely to succeed. It’s a dangerous game. Guilt is certainly one upshot. Equally, since you say that the people you dislike respond warmly to you being nice to them, it could be that they’ve become more likeable in the sunshine of your niceness. But you’ve just not noticed. You’re too wedded to the idea that you don’t like them.

Devastatingly, all of the above might be entirely wrong. You really don’t like them – although ‘like’ might be the wrong word. But the mystery remains as to why you feel compelled to be nice. Perhaps you feel that you must like everyone and are guilty that you can’t. You’re burdening yourself. Get rid of the idea of liking or disliking and think instead of sympathy, common interests, a shared sense of humour or whatever it is that allows us to get on with some and not others.

It’s not a crime to feel no bond of friendship with certain individuals but it hasn’t got anything to do with liking or not liking them. Furthermore, some of us want everyone to like us so the urge to be nice to people we don’t like is really a reflection of that. A feeling of dislike for someone else provokes a fear that we might not be liked ourselves – that the other person might feel exactly the same, in other words. So we try to short-circuit our anxieties by being nice.

Please send your questions to thomas.blaikie@lady.co.uk or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT… UNWANTED PRESENTS

On her state visit to Germany last month, the Queen was presented with an Expressionist-type painting of herself as a small girl sitting on a blue horse held by her father. The Queen said, ‘That’s a funny colour for a horse.’ Then she peered at it some more. ‘Is that supposed to be my father?’ she inquired of the President of Germany. ‘Don’t you recognise him?’ President Gauck asked. ‘No,’ said the Queen. On the face of it, she was quite rude. In some respects older people who are not the Queen can get away with this kind of thing more easily. But the exchange of presents on state visits is a formality not quite parallel with what happens in real life.

You could say that the Queen was cutting through a lot of stuffiness in a delightful way. And, wasn’t it rather a blunder to think of giving her such a thing anyway?

I do wonder whether, following the Queen’s example, more of us should not adopt this more direct approach when receiving a present. Refreshing honesty cutting through the shallow mask of manners. What a conundrum for the etiquette expert!


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