The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 16 November

Dear Thomas

I find it rather intrusive and – yes – over-familiar when people I have never met before call me by my first name. It happens all too frequently; for example, when dealing with airlines, insurance companies and mobile phone providers. Only yesterday my elderly mother was called in for an appointment in the GP surgery by her first name. It used to be a mark of respect to address people by their surname until given permission to do otherwise. Commercial providers are not friends and should keep to professional, respectful boundaries. They are often surprised when I ask them to use my formal name. The idea seems to be to establish a rapport, but I’d rather have good service, handled in a respectful way. What can be done to overcome this rampant over-familiarity?

Mrs Liz Brown, Wiltshire

Dear Mrs Brown

Once before, a reader wrote with a similar complaint about over-familiarity and I began my reply: ‘Dear Sue…’ I was ticked off by another reader. So I’ve learnt my lesson.

It’s fundamental that you should be called what you want to be called – provided you have a proper claim to the appellation. The late Raine, Countess Spencer, as she called herself, was, in fact, Raine, Comtesse de Chambrun, Chambrun being the name of her third and final husband from whom she was divorced. But such was the vastness of her coiffure, nobody dared to defy her.

In general, the business of how to address people in this country is hampered by the class system. Much better to be French, where everyone is ‘Monsieur’, ‘Madame’ or ‘Mademoiselle’ in any commercial, professional or formal situation. You will only be ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ in a ‘posh’ establishment these days, if at all. If you insist on being addressed by your surname, you risk being thought ‘stuck up’.

We’re all supposed to be matey these days. Sometimes people even shorten your name without being invited to do so. No thank you! I’m not Tom. It’s just not my name. To some extent, it’s just the custom of the time. My great-grandmother, 100 years ago, always addressed her best friend as Mrs Martin. Fifteen years ago I advised that it would be a liberty to assume you could call an older person by their first name. But now all the older people are children of the ‘let-it-all-hang-out’ sixties.

There’s no going back, except – and I’m guessing this is what bothers you the most – in one respect: the over-familiar use of first names in commercial and professional situations, where it seems calculating and false. There, keep up the good work you seem to have already started: object and correct.

Please write to Thomas at the usual Bedford Street address or email 


I must have that recipe! Without a second thought, we ask friends for their recipes. But on a recent visit to a Suffolk National Trust Property, I wondered whether we should be quite so casual.

In the kitchen at Ickworth, the guide explained that the cook would shoo everybody out while she administered her finishing touches to her creations. She was protecting her trade secrets – and her livelihood. She didn’t want anybody waltzing off to another grand house and setting up in competition.

In a time before recipe books were two-a-penny, this was the attitude of cooks even in humbler homes. My great- aunt Queenie’s cook, Janet, would only divulge her recipe for marmalade by bequest in her will. These days celebrity chefs with restaurants hurl out recipe books on the hour. But they can’t reveal everything, otherwise we’d never go to their restaurants. It’s a bit of a con.

How about a clamp-down in the kitchen? Recipes once again closely guarded secrets. It may be Nigella, but I’ve added my own little variations. Which you’ll never know about. If you’re looking for a new mode for this winter, I suggest: be evasive about your recipes.