The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 24 November

Dear Thomas

I was rather put out when a group of us went out to lunch recently and quite unexpectedly one of the party insisted on paying for us all. I know it was a generous gesture but I wonder. Somehow I wasn’t comfortable about it.

Seamus O’Halloran, Wimbledon

Dear Seamus

Ah! Money! It’s some time since we’ve touched on the various delicate awkwardnesses that arise…I sympathise. In the first place, you had not agreed in advance to be treated to lunch. The generosity was thrust upon you and you had no choice. Now, some people will feel that this was a delightful surprise, but some, such as yourself, will not. But it is always better if, on entering a restaurant or any social paying situation really, it is made clear in advance who is forking out and everybody knows where they stand. Not bad about the delightful surprise.

More generally, I am reminded of that wonderful phrase that occurs near the end of The Great Gatsby: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ Yes, rich people, or the kind of people who behave like rich people, picking up restaurant tabs on a whim, that kind of thing – they’re careless. Maybe they really do mean well, they want everybody to be happy, but they don’t realise how the recipients of their largesse might feel – just a little bit overwhelmed, or obliged, or humiliated, that they can perfectly easily pay for their lunch themselves.

How can we ever repay? This is the desperate response of many. What drives the rich? Maybe they hope that people will like them more if they pay for everything. But really people will like them that bit less, or quite a lot less. My private theory, yet to be tested by science, is that often someone is driven to acquire wealth and status by inadequacy: once elevated they hope to feel better about themselves. But they don’t. That’s the point at which they smash things up and retreat into their money, leaving others to clear up the mess.

So we don’t trust the grand, generous gesture – we hear the faint distant rattle of doom as the Amex card slides into the machine. But it doesn’t have to be like this. You can be rich and disciplined. And trustworthy. Generosity can be genuine. There are rich people who give and never count the cost, even when they are blatantly being taken advantage of. So, perhaps in the end you should allow yourself to be comfortable that your lunch was paid for – for the time being at least. Wait and see what happens. Hope for the best; expect the worst.

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WHAT TO DO ABOUT...'Fulsome'

Priti Patel made an insincere, excessive apology to the prime minister when she resigned as Overseas Development Minister; it is unusual perhaps for someone who has caused embarrassment on such a scale to be quite so explicit about it. Various figures appeared on Radio 4 to explain that the ex-minister obviously thought ‘fulsome’ meant ‘full’. ‘Everybody’ understood what she meant; what’s more it’s really being a terrible bore and pedant to insist on the actual meaning of ‘fulsome’. But you only have to see those pictures of Miss Patel being driven away from Downing Street with a blatant smirk on her face to be quite certain she was using ‘fulsome’ in its proper sense. I even feel a little sorry for her. She has been so misunderstood and patronised, as if she were someone for whom allowances have to be made, as if she had only recently learnt English: ‘don’t worry, dear, we know what you mean.’ Now, if she’d said she was going to ‘decimate’ the government, it would have been another matter. It really is ridiculous to insist that ‘decimate’ can only mean ‘divide by 10.’ but words like ‘fulsome’ or ‘disinterested’ have a useful specific meaning. our language is diminished if they merely become synonymous with ‘full’ or ‘uninterested.’