Q To your correspondent with a guest whose table manners offend (2 May), you suggest screening him off with a well-positioned vase of flowers. Mary, this may work for lockdown but whether or not his peers say that ‘table manners aren’t a thing anymore’, they certainly are still a thing among the sort of people who might give him a job. Someone needs to upset him, in the short term, for his own good in the long. I write as a parent whose daughter’s likeable but slobbish-at-the-table boyfriend will re-enter our orbit when this blessed holiday comes to an end.
— Name and address withheld
A. The clue is to approach the issue from a humanitarian, rather than a snobbish, perspective. You might take a tip from one family, in the same position as yourself, who conveyed the instructions re civility via a proxy. It involved the collusion of the daughter. Serving her first and delaying his own plate allowed the daughter to perform predictive mirroring of her boyfriend’s likely lapses — incorrect knife-holding, slurping and so on. Her parents could then correct her, not him, across the table as they reminded her of the importance of being considerate towards fellow diners. Allegedly the youth was re-educated by osmosis. The key fact was he did not take the criticism personally.
Q. My friends and I are all over 70 so clearly are going to have to socially isolate for some considerable time. We all enjoy chatting on our landlines. But some are obviously bored and find this a good way to fill the empty hours, whereas there comes a point (after an hour or more!) when I would prefer to do something else. What would be a suitable way to interrupt the flow and terminate the conversation without seeming rude? Usual excuses are nonexistent, as no one is expecting a visitor, or is about to go out, or has an urgent job to finish and everything can always wait until later… or until tomorrow.
— P.W., Auckland, New Zealand
A. Just say: ‘Well this has been very enjoyable but I suppose I’d better let you go in the short-term…’ Should the interlocutor protest that they have nothing better to do than to chat to you, reply: ‘Oh good — well then let’s talk again tomorrow or the next day.’ In plain-speaking Northern Ireland, they use the balder sign-off ‘Good enough’.
Q. I live in a fairly remote village and see no reason to confine my exercise to one hour a day. However, I am discombobulated by a newish resident who asks ‘Going out again?’ each time I pass her cottage. I don’t know if she is being friendly or hostile.
— Name and address withheld
A. You might find out by replying first with a comment on the glorious weather and the seclusion of your underpopulated village, before pleasantly adding: ‘Why do you ask?’
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