Friday, 08 April 2016

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 8 April

Prince or pauper – social gaffes happen to everybody. Thomas Blaikie muses on the agony of making a conversational faux pas

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
I do wish I could stop myself from saying the wrong thing. It happened again just the other day. I was explaining how a ridiculous little bald man had nearly run me over. Who was I talking to? Well, maybe he wasn’t ridiculous, but he was small and without hair!
Veronica Wilson, Broadstairs

Dear Veronica, I know just how you feel. ‘You could get rid of that horrid pittosporum,’ I said, realising too late that I was addressing the person who chooses the plants for the community garden. That was in March. ‘All our best furniture came from Aunt Queenie,’ I announced at my mother’s birthday lunch in February. My mother was not pleased. Aunt Queenie was my father’s aunt. What about the furniture from her side?

Sir John Gielgud was famous for his gaffes, whereas Sir Ralph Richardson somehow managed to put his foot through Lord Olivier’s ceiling. But Larry was the victim of both of them: ‘Larry! You’re dead!’ Gielgud declared on seeing Olivier awfully ill. ‘I mean… you’re dying! I mean… my poor darling Larry, you don’t look at all well!’ Another time, Gielgud had not enjoyed Richard Burton’s performance. Afterwards he ‘went round’: ‘We’ll have dinner when you’re better… I mean ready.’

Usually gaffes occur in sticky situations away from your usual social circle when you hope to liven things up with some outrageous remark or extreme opinion. Before you know it you’ve put your foot in it. ‘I just can’t stand moss green,’ you hurl at someone in exactly that shade. Or else one is just showing off. It’s awful making a faux pas and usually you realise that what you said you didn’t mean at all.

Guard against embarrassment by avoiding sweeping remarks, especially about appearance, matters of taste or food (if predinner, it’s bound to be what you’re having). Or, as nanny would have said, think before you open your trap. Remember what happened at Box Hill? (I refer to Jane Austen’s Emma.) Emma thought she was being awfully clever telling Miss Bates that it would be a miracle if that famously boring lady could only think of two dull things to say.

Can gaffes be undone? Not really. Attempts to explain only draw more attention to the victim’s size, lack of hair or the fact that they’re wearing moss green. I was able to put right the business about the pittosporum, though, with an apology, saying, truthfully, that I’d changed my mind. The real punishment is that the perpetrator of a faux pas will feel far worse about it than the victim, although that wasn’t true of Miss Bates.

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


More men are crying than ever before according to a survey conducted for Universal Channel. Of 2,000 British men asked, 40 per cent admitted to weeping in public within the past year. Emotional TV shows had 80 per cent in tears, but 40 per cent of those said they’d tried to hide their feelings.

Before we hail some wondrous ‘improvement’ in men, let’s look a little deeper. President Obama wiped away tears during his speech to the American nation about gun control in January. He didn’t break down completely, as Graham Satchell did on BBC Breakfast when reporting on the Paris attacks in November. Satchell was praised, but how might it have been if he’d been a woman reporter? He couldn’t help it, poor man, but the brutal truth is he was unable to continue with his broadcast.

When Andy Murray broke down after losing Wimbledon in 2012 some said, ‘At last, he’s human’. Others thought it a bit much. The emotion of the moment might overwhelm anybody and most would probably prefer that it happened in private. A tendency to tears is not a measure of humanity. Many ghastly dictators have been notably lachrymose.

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