The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 1 December

Dear Thomas

When in California some years ago, my husband and I decided to treat ourselves to dinner in a nice restaurant; one that had long, starched, white tablecloths and waiters in uniforms.

After we had ordered our food, a large party of adults were shown to the round table near us. One of the men said to the waiter, ‘We just want dessert’. To our shock the waiter didn’t seem surprised and handed out menus.

Being strangers in a foreign land, my husband and I said absolutely nothing, except to each other!

Shirley Young, Potters Bar

Dear Shirley

Now this is intriguing. America is the land of service: the customer is king. In a restaurant you can order whatever you want. A friend of mine took a client to lunch at the Rainbow Room in the Rockefeller Center in New York. This was in the 1980s. She’d chosen it as the supreme restaurant of all time in that city. But the client cast aside the fabulous à la carte menu. ‘This is what I’d really like, ’ she said, going on to order a complicated medley of leaves and nuts (‘no dressing’). I’ve never seen anyone in America using a restaurant just for dessert but I can well believe that they would.

So the whole basis of our etiquette and manners is called into question. Does it rest merely on the random shifts of cultural practice? I’ve been reading a book about greeting by Andy Scott entitled One Kiss or Two? In Search of the Perfect Greeting (published by Duckworth Overlook, priced £16.99). Nearly 300 pages on social kissing and shaking hands! But it’s fascinating; a scholarly study, not an etiquette book.

Chimpanzees kiss – did you know? That might be where we get it from. So our greeting conduct is partly innate but there’s enormous cultural variation as well. Plus, with our huge human brains, we’re always looking for new ways of doing things and we quickly adapt.

Whatever the complications, we have a great urge to greet. By the end of Scott’s book, you see that if we stopped greeting, the world would come to an end. So much for those who say that manners and etiquette are trivial. So where does this leave us with those Californian dessert-only diners? I notice that your huge brain was actually adapting very well. You were particularly alert to the response of the waiter, which told you that the apparently odd behaviour of the customers was actually all right. There was an implicit agreement between them. From that, you worked out that what you were witnessing was not rudeness (although it still seemed rude to you) but a different custom of another country.

In other words, although it might not seem like it, you instantly detected manners – that these people had some kind of contract that oils the wheels of daily life.

Please send your questions to thomas.blaikie@lady.co.uk or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER


WHAT TO DO ABOUT...Sudden fame

I shouldn’t boast. You may recall that in The Lady (20 October) I mentioned in passing (Karen Peart had written to me about another matter, really) that weekday dinner parties should end at 10.30. I handed in my copy as usual and thought no more about it. Until a day or two after publication, when it was drawn to my attention that the Mail Online was blazing with a sudden massive sensation – manners Correspondent of The Lady says dinner parties to end at 10.30 on a weekday! Next thing there was a Twitter storm, then further ‘pick up’ (as it’s called in the trade and much sought after, as you can imagine) in The Times and The Telegraph. Finally Vanessa Feltz herself (she was one of my mothers in my teaching days) in the express – mercifully championing the 10.30 idea, unlike some of the others, such as William Sitwell in The Times who said he’d be outraged if anyone left before midnight – what an insult to his lemon tart. This approach to entertaining – that the guests must bear the burden of keeping the hosts amused and happy – was shared by the late Lady Diana Cooper.