The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 3 November

Dear Thomas

I enjoy your weekly Modern Manners page. I eat out with different friends a couple of times a week. Is there a polite response to waiters who interrupt our conversation to ask if ‘Everything is all right’? We find this rude and tend to lose the thread of our conversation, but haven’t yet come up with a response which doesn’t sound equally rude. Only once in the past couple of years has a waiter waited for a slight pause in the conversation and then said, ‘Excuse me,’ before asking if we were satisfied with everything.

Do we just accept this is the way things are now, as we have accepted ‘Are you all right there?’ as a replacement for ‘May I help you?’ and ‘Hi, guys’ as a greeting to half a dozen middle-aged ladies arriving at a restaurant?

Dawn Allen, Hampshire

Dear Dawn

The restaurant industry ought to do a survey of waiting staff to find out how many times the enquiry, ‘Is everything all right?’ has been answered with ‘No it isn’t.’ I suspect not very often, if ever. Yet, as you say, in nearly all establishments of any repute the arrival of the food will be followed, regular as clockwork, by a cuckoo popping out a few moments later and going, ‘Is everything all right?’ often before diners have had a chance to savour the aromas of the dish, let alone taste it. It’s not the fault of staff. Waiters will have been told to ask this question with no option to exercise discretion. Plus they have other jobs to get on with, so can’t hang around waiting for the right moment. In the dining room of a hotel in Cornwall where I was last week, they kept saying, ‘Can I arrange some more bread for you?’ ‘Can I arrange for you to have another napkin?’ An alarming amount of arranging was going on. Luckily this initiative only lasted one evening: by the next night they were back to normal locution, such as plain old ‘get’ or ‘fetch’. All this attention and accompanying spiralling daintiness is no doubt a desperate attempt to pre-empt what the hospitality trade dreads: a bad review on Tripadvisor. If the customer said, ‘Everything is all right,’ when asked, then they can hardly sneak off and trash your business online, can they? There’s a very simple solution to this problem. Why doesn’t the waiter wait until they are clearing the plates between the courses to ask if ‘Everything is all right’? that is, when diners are being unavoidably interrupted anyway? I don’t see why you shouldn’t suggest this in a jolly sort of fashion to the person in charge of the restaurant as you depart. By the way, don’t tell me you’ve ‘accepted’ ‘Hi, guys’ as a greeting for middle-aged ladies! It’s so trashy. A pencilled note to the management, please.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT...Smoking jackets

I’ve received a desperate plea from the managing director of The Lady, Helen Robinson. She detects an alarming new infection, first sighted in Oxfordshire, now spreading to Norfolk and Leicestershire. It’s men in smoking jackets, no ties, and not in their own homes. ‘Smoking jackets are not worn outside one’s own home,’ she says. Those adopting this bizarre dress code, she suspects, were 1980s yuppies but now are ‘smokties’ (pronounced smock- tees). Could this become code for some- one who wants to be frightfully posh but doesn’t have a clue? Perhaps it’s more the people in smoking jackets rather than the jackets themselves. I can’t resist re-telling the story of how a country house owner James Lees-Milne met during the war would only consider wearing black tie ‘when dining alone with his wife in her bedroom’, other-wise white tie without fail. Also, what exactly is a smoking jacket? – it’s not just a velvet jacket. It must have a quilted shawl collar and frogging, or be a short kind of dressing gown – favoured by Hugh Hefner, late, not lamented, of Playboy magazine – in which case, not even the home, bedroom only.

written by Thomas Blaikie