Dear Mary

Dear Mary: How do you escape from a stranger's childhood trauma story?

Plus: The answer to arriving at a party presentless

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

Q. Recently a cousin and I gave a small drinks party in the USA. She had invited a very elegant older Hispanic woman. At the end of the party, my cousin was in a tête-à-tête with this woman on the sofa and I was left with two other (American) women at the table, one of whom was telling amusing anecdotes. I deliberately didn’t interrupt my cousin as I thought she wanted to be alone with her new friend. However later my cousin said that the woman, without any prompting, had started a long story of how she’d been abused by her stepfather as a child. My cousin was longing to get away but didn’t feel able. How could she have extricated herself?
— E.S., London W11

A. Your cousin could have almost finished whatever drink she was holding, then clumsily spilt the rest, ideally over her own tights. The mopping-up operation would have caused a distraction in the room and triggered the resumption of inclusive conversation. After this ‘break in transmission’, your cousin could have fast forwarded the monologue to its conclusion by inquiring: ‘So, in a nutshell, how would you best summarise the effect this trauma had on you?’

Q. I arrived at a dinner party in London which turned out to be a silver wedding anniversary dinner party. Others had brought silver photograph frames, handmade cushions etc, and I was the only guest to arrive empty-handed. I sensed I had hurt my friends’ feelings and wondered what I could have done.
— D.J., London SW1

A. You could have left the room and used your iPhone to order a next-day delivery from of a pair of goosedown pillows (from £74 a pair for Hungarian goosedown to £340 a pair for Siberian). If you are not set up for this sort of activity, phone a friend who is and get them to do it for you. No one can have enough goosedown pillows and no one would expect you to arrive carrying them. You can then beam guiltlessly as you say, ‘I’ve just checked and my present of goosedown pillows will be delivered here tomorrow.’ No need to elaborate further.

Q. My 15-year-old godson is magnificent except for one off-putting habit — he clears his throat noisily and graphically and looks proud while he does it. Unfortunately he has acquired the habit from his father — neither realises it is disgusting. How should I intervene?
— M.W., Marlborough, Wilts

A. Record the noises and use them as your mobile ringtone. Then make sure a lot of people ring you next time you are with them. You will thereby teach them to associate the noise with nuisance and interruption. At least you will be able to open up the debate about whether the noises are disgusting or not.

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