Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 3 June

A reader frets that her summer blooms won’t stand a chance when a bumbling friend pays a visit. Thomas Blaikie advises

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
A friend of mine wants to visit my garden now that summer is upon us. The trouble is, on previous visits, she always manages to step on a plant or bash into a shrub and break the stems. Short of keeping her on a leash, I don’t know what to do. Can you advise?
Florence Senhouse, York

Dear Florence
Your problem is essentially how to criticise others without upsetting them. There are people who positively relish being bossed about and told what to do at every turn. A brusque Barbara Woodhousestyle command and they’re at heel immediately. Your friend, with her bull-in-a-china-shop conduct in your garden, doesn’t sound like one of those. Most people, I tend to think, don’t like being criticised in any kind of direct way and will react defensively. Somebody once said (I think it was Konrad Lorenz: not quite sure who he was, but he was awfully important. I’ll leave you to Google) that the human race is the most aggressive species on Earth. Attack us and we’ll lash out. I’m not sure that he necessarily meant you and your friend in your garden, but never mind.

Criticism, also, is often unfair. Too condemnatory, and we attribute intentions where there are none. So, from your point of view, your friend is deliberately massacring your garden. But probably she isn’t. The worst thing to do, therefore, would be to aggressively stereotype and dismiss her entire personality:

‘You’re so clumsy.’ ‘Why don’t you ever look what you’re doing?’ The knack is to criticse and restrain, without appearing to do so. So she won’t even notice. In this case, I would develop a sudden infirmity that requires you to hold onto her in the garden. That way, you can monitor her limbs closely. Just as she’s about to step on her first plant, you can say, ‘Oh dear. That plant’s in the way, We’d (not ‘you’) better be careful.’ Now you’ll have an excuse to point out hazards on your garden tour. ‘That shrub over there, it’s so fragile. We could approach it gingerly or avoid altogether. What do you think?’ ‘That bush is as tough as old boots. We can knock that about as much as we like.’ Ideally she will absorb – without any sense of having previously been at fault – that she has to take care in your garden.

There’s the possibility, of course, because some people have a skin several feet thick, that she won’t. In that case, it might be time to get out the sledgehammer, because she can’t be that sensitive. But still you should be mock-headmistressy to soften the blow: ‘Look here, Deirdre (or whatever she’s called), do try at least not to trample over my plants.’

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


Terms of endearment of this kind have been outlawed in recent years for all but true intimates. Michael Winner and the current prime minister drove the final nails into the coffin of 'dear' when used by men to soothe women thought to be getting overwrought. 'Calm down, dear, it's just a commercial.' David Cameron attempted to repeat this formula in the House of Commons with disastrous results. Now the contamination has spread: 'sweetie', 'my love', etc, are patronising in all contexts. It's a bit odd because where I come from in Devon, shopkeepers always addressed customers as 'my lover' and it never occurred to anyone that they were being talked down to – it was just good customer relations. Also very convenient when you can't remember anyone's name. 

I know a few people to whom everyone is 'darling'. You have to be a certain extravagant kind of personality, but it works. A neighbour, from the North, who was initially rather frosty, suddenly called me 'pet' and I thought, 'How nice.' These terms could be effective if you're hoping to reconcile with someone you don't know well while retaining a certain superiority.

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