Friday, 13 November 2015

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 13 November

When addressing someone as a partner, how does one know what sort of ‘partner’ they are? Thomas Blaikie advises

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
A horrible misunderstanding occurred recently at a business meeting when someone present kept referring to her partner. Maybe I should have listened more carefully. At the coffee break I asked her if she’d been on holiday with her partner this year and that sort of thing. She seemed offended. Finally the penny dropped. It wasn’t that kind of partner. The man was her business partner. How do I avoid this faux pas in the future?
Guy Westlake, Taunton

Dear Guy,
Let’s hope that this awkward experience will have alerted you and you won’t fall into this trap again. I can quite understand that at a probably less than riveting business meeting your attention might have wandered. As so often in the barbed-wire-lined byways of modern manners, you can never be certain of anything. Best to proceed with caution at all times.

Often people say emphatically, ‘work partner’ or ‘business partner’ to make it clear. Otherwise, the misunderstandings can be quite tremendous.

Nevertheless, the term ‘partner’, to mean a long-term sexual partner to whom one is not married, is not entirely satisfactory, not least because it is ambiguous. Beyond a certain age, it is thought undignified to be a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Once over 40, you’ve got to be a ‘partner’. Yet I know people in their 50s enjoying boyfriend/girlfriendtype relationships in the sense of fun-loving (if you know what I mean) and not terribly serious.

‘Partner’ implies a certain grim equality, a preoccupation with who’s going to wait in for the washingmachine repair person. It’s a shrivelled term. Children have partners for classroom activities. You can be a partner in a firm of solicitors. Is it really a substitute for ‘marriage’ or ‘love affair’? Where’s the romance? Some unmarried women refer to the man in their life as just that, ‘my man’ or ‘feller’, which is blunt but not unattractive. The trouble is a man can’t very well refer to his ‘woman’ without suggesting domestic slavery. The term ‘mistress’ has gone, and in any case, there was never a male equivalent.

So what’s the solution? Recently the footballer Frank Lampard presented himself at Buckingham Palace to collect his OBE accompanied by Christine Bleakley, who is not his mistress nor his ‘lady friend’ (another off-colour term), and two children from a previous relationship. Cleverly, Christine is his ‘fiancée’ and has been since 2011 with still no date for the wedding. Frank had a fiancée before, the mother of his children, whom he never married. Perfect! ‘Fiancée’ is a unisex term, apart from the spelling, and doesn’t preclude a couple putting off the wedding indefinitely.

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

WHAT TO DO ABOUT… Kindness from Strangers

On a recent short holiday in Lyme Regis, my mother, now gliding very comfortably towards 92 years of age, expressed a wish to climb Golden Cap, a cliff-side hill near the famous Jurassic coast. This turned out to be a three-mile round trip on foot, including the final ascent of Golden Cap.

At the summit we encountered a lady we’d bid ‘Good Morning’ to in the car park earlier (as is customary when walking in the country). My mother happened to say, ‘I wish I’d brought my stick. There’s always something you forget.’ The lady, who might have been less than 40, said, ‘Why don’t you have mine?’ and insisted on handing it over, explaining which was her car so we could return it. So it was not only an extraordinarily generous and thoughtful gesture but also a trusting one.

The stick was invaluable for the descent down and back in the car park, we found the right car and penned a note of thanks. So thank you, nice lady, should you ever read this.

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