Q. I recently gave a jolly dinner for eight friends (some old, some rather famous), all home cooking, ending with petits-fours. The next morning, everything cleared away, husband out for the day, I relaxed by the open French windows, reading (still wearing my long Victorian nightgown). I was startled to see two of the guests smiling in, come to lend a book we’d talked about the night before. The husband, mildly embarrassed, looked out at the garden intently; the wife kept turning the pages of the book they’d brought. Neither showed signs of leaving. I determined to stay sitting comfortably, explained that I had decided to slum it as I was alone, and didn’t offer them coffee, as I felt it would prolong the awkwardness. What should I have done, Mary?
— Name and address withheld
A. Even with ordinary old friends/ neighbours, it is a real breach of etiquette to drop in without ringing first. It’s an invasion of mental privacy and you wouldn’t think twice about thanking them but then sending them swiftly on their way with a note of rebuke in your voice. Unlike the readers, I am privy to your address and can deduce who the famous guest was. No one could blame you for being star-struck and discombobulated to be found by such a literary giant in a state of deshabillée — and perhaps without supportive underwear? Your best bet would have been to cry, ‘How lovely to see you but I won’t hold you up at the moment. Let’s talk as soon as I’ve read it.’
Q. During more than one recent conversation, I have found myself forgetting whatever it was I was about to say when my interlocutor stopped speaking. Is it ever acceptable to simply butt in when you suspect that otherwise one’s gem of wisdom may be lost for eternity?
— A.C., London W8
A. Most would rather miss out on the gem of wisdom than have their own flow interrupted. Better to scribble a trigger word on a piece of paper to remind you what it was you had to say. On no account should you bore your interlocutor by saying that you can’t believe it… you were just about to say something absolutely fascinating but have completely forgotten what it was.
Q. My boyfriend has put on a lot of weight since we’ve got together. I don’t like it at all and have done everything I can to discourage him from overeating, but to no avail. What annoys me is that whenever we meet up with his old friends, one of them invariably turns to me as though it is my fault, and asks ‘How could you have let him put on so much weight?’ What should I say?
— H.L., London W9
A. Answer pleasantly, ‘Oh I’m so glad you’ve asked. I’d love it if you took him on as I’ve so obviously failed. Are you volunteering?’
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