Freshers' Pressures

It’s the time of year when new students set out on their university adventure starting, inevitably, with Freshers’ Week. This ritual initiation into university life, when new students meet their contemporaries and explore all the social possibilities ­– clubs, societies, theatre, sports – that the university has to offer can be very challenging. It is frequently depicted as a sybaritic week of excess, when new students party from dusk to dawn, form unsuitable attachments and generally let rip. But for many students it is a time of deep anxiety when they are beset by feelings of homesickness and inadequacy, and the certainty that they will never, ever survive this new world.

Freshers’ Week is by no means a make-or-break initiation and students who find it daunting and exclusive should never panic that they are going to spend their entire university career feeling lonely and disregarded. For that matter, many of the students who hit the ground running and party like there’s no tomorrow during Fresher’s Week may spend the first few weeks of terms extricating themselves from embarrassing relationships and arduous commitments and seeking more suitable friendships. Remind yourself that it is not inevitably the most confident, gregarious and voluble students who will enjoy the most successful university career.

Freshers’ Week lasts just a few days at the beginning of term and offers a tantalising glimpse of the possibilities that lie ahead. Don’t approach it with unrealistic expectations: making dozens of new friends and turning into a social sensation is a very unlikely outcome of these first few days. The real business of university living is a much quieter affair, a matter of forming friendships with people who share your interests and passions, of meeting compatible companions in the canteen, shop, bar or library, of bonding with your contemporaries over pints of watery beer or endless cups of coffee. Concentrate on sorting yourself out – fixing your room, locating the best places for food, finding the library and lecture halls, sorting out your timetable – and friendships will inevitably come your way.

Above all, remember that everyone is in the same boat. They are all trying to find their feet and carve out a new, independent life. Some people will approach this challenge with verve and confidence, which may well mask deep-seated feelings of anxiety, but that is not the only way to proceed. If you’re a shy and reserved person, don’t pretend to be something you’re not; stay true to yourself and you will inevitably find kindred spirits.

Make the Most of University

•Be there
Don’t react to the new challenges by withdrawing, shutting yourself in your room, and communing with your laptop – sharing your woes on social media is only going to make you feel worse.  Remember that university is a lived experience and force yourself to get out and about on the campus: go to lectures, hang around in the student buttery, stop off at the bar.

•Be a good host
Concentrate in the first few weeks on making your room comfortable and inviting and equip yourself with a kettle, mugs, coffee, tea, biscuits, drinks etc. You will find that friendships develop fast if you operate an open-door policy and show yourself to be ever-willing to invite in fellow students for a drink and a chat.

•Learn to cook
Even if you can only manage half a dozen “signature” dishes, it is a really good idea to have some sort of culinary repertoire before you start university. Cooking for yourself might well be cheaper than university food, and more delicious. More importantly, if you can turn out a competent, edible meal you always have the option of asking new friends round for supper. Getting some new acquaintances around a table with wine and food is a great way of consolidating friendships. It also means you’ll receive invitations in return and will start to build up a social network.

•Learn to say no
Freshers’ Week is just the beginning of the bombardment of possibilities that university offers. You may find yourself signing up for an eccentric and impractical array of clubs and societies, which have little or no relation to your interest or capacities. This is normal, and many students find themselves spending their first few weeks reviewing the aftermath of their initial enthusiasm and disentangling themselves from over-enthusiastic commitments. You will need to get to know yourself and establish what interests or excites you, and part of that process is learning to be selective about how you spend your precious time.

•Think about time management
You’re going to have to juggle lots of new things at university: academic work, organised leisure activities, socialising. This can all be a bit overwhelming when you’ve just left home and you’re experimenting with your new-found independence. The important thing is to try and be objective about your capacities, your energy, your time available, and to make judgments based on these insights. It is a bad idea to take on an array of time-consuming social activities when you’ve got a challenging term academically; understanding how damaging these conflicts can be, and learning how to prioritise, is all part of growing up and running our own life.

•Stay polite and positive
Whoever you are interacting with, whether it is librarians, canteen assistants, lecturers, department secretaries, cleaners, or fellow students, you will find that a positive demeanour and good manners will go a long way. Remember the basic codes: smile as much as possible; always say “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” when you encounter people on campus; if you’re making an enquiry, preface it with “Excuse me”; litter your conversations with “please” and “thank you” where appropriate. You will make the discovery that good manners really do improve social interactions. Other people will be impressed by your politeness and more willing to be patient and helpful, which can only be a good thing when you are finding your feet as an independent young adult.

Back to the Office?

About 29 per cent of the UK working population has hybrid working arrangements and about 11 per cent are fully home-based. These figures appear to have stabilised over the last year and are driven by employee demand; according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) 71 per cent of workers “view flexible working as important to them when considering a new role”.

The advantages of working flexibly are obvious. Commuting, which is costly and bad for the environment, is reduced. Employees are able to manipulate their working day to accommodate other demands on their time, such as childcare or looking after older parents, free from the multiple distractions of noisy, open-plan offices, and productivity and efficiency rises.

But, despite these well-rehearsed arguments, many employers are beginning to revisit their working arrangements and are insisting that employees should return to the office – usually for a minimum number of days (two or three). One reason for this initiative is the fact that many employers are finding it hard to recruit outstanding candidates for new roles, because they are searching in a pool of potential employees who have had very little office experience and who have not had the benefit of picking up skills and experience through a process of osmosis – simply being around more experienced colleagues in the office and observing how they behave. This informal ‘training’ is invaluable and should never be underrated; an individual who is working at home and only interacting with colleagues through video meetings is essentially isolated from office culture and office know-how.

Many recent graduates have never worked in an office. This is because they entered the job market during the Covid pandemic, started their jobs remotely and have since adhered to the home-working model. The result is that, while they are self-motivated and disciplined, they have very little experience of interacting with other people. They have never enjoyed casual encounters in the kitchen or by the water-cooler, have never participated in light-hearted badinage and gossip across the desks in an open-plan office, and have not joined in the camaraderie of shared lunches and after-work drinks. Working alone at home, despite its obvious benefits, has left them feeling adrift and anxious, especially as most of their day-to-day interactions are online or on social media (which can easily engender feelings of inadequacy). Without a sense of connection and belonging, which is fostered by day-to-day office interactions, these new workers are less likely to feel any sense of loyalty or attachment to their current employers and are more likely to move on quickly to new jobs.

The social awkwardness that can be brought on by long periods of isolated working can be crippling, especially for young people. It can impede their ability to interact smoothly with clients or colleagues, it can also impair their career progression ­ – being in an office where you can buttonhole your boss or team leader for some quick advice is a highly effective way of improving your skills and making your presence felt (compare the cumbersome, more formal, process of seeking advice through a remote video call). When you are surrounded by co-workers you can act spontaneously, bounce ideas off colleagues, enjoy impromptu discussions and exchange feedback. Freed from the formal constraints of organised meetings, or the scrutiny of the video screen, you can let rip, floating suggestions and canvassing your colleague’s opinions whenever you feel inspired. A stimulating working environment is much more easily nurtured when people are sharing a physical space and responding to facial expressions and body language as well as the spoken or written word.

Yet, despite these undoubted benefits, many employees are still baulking at the idea of being entirely office-based. They argue, quite understandably, that they are more productive at home because they find offices – with their clatter of half-heard conversations, comings and goings, endless meetings – distracting. When you have become used to the tranquillity of a controlled work environment at home, it is hard to adjust to the hurly-burly of a busy office.

Employers understand enticing employees back to the office might be something of an uphill struggle, and many are offering an ever-more enticing range of perks and inducements to make the prospect more seductive: free lunches, food discounts, free gym membership, language lessons, tax-free childcare and so on.

Clearly the working landscape has changed irrevocably, and we will never go back to the old inflexibility of the 9-5/five days a week model. The genie has been let out of the bottle and the current generation of office workers has tasted the freedom and flexibility of home-based working. The solution must be a compromise: hybrid working, where workers agree to be in the office for a minimum number of days, seems to offer the best solution. It means that employers can still enjoy the long-term benefits of having employees on-site, whilst employees can enjoy the undoubted benefits of the new-found flexibility. It is clear that if employers are unwilling or unable to provide a hybrid working option, they may well find their most talented workers are voting with their feet and are seeking less rigid working arrangements elsewhere.

Polite Play Dates

School term is underway and parents, especially if they have young children, will need to take responsibility for organising and overseeing their kids’ budding social lives. This means, at the very least, inviting friends (or potential friends) round to after-school play dates. This is a comparatively unchallenging introduction to the whole notion of childhood socialising; in time it will evolve into sleepovers, shared outings and even shared holidays.

Play dates can seem daunting, especially if you’re not used to organising them, but they are vital. Young children are, not surprisingly, clueless when it comes to organising a social life and they need a helping hand from responsible adults. The main priority is to lay on a decent tea, organise a pick-up time with the corresponding parents (the normal pattern is for you to pick the kids up from school, and for the other parent to pick up their child from your house, but of course this is not a hard and fast rule), and ensure that plenty of entertainment is available. Try your best to leave the children alone as much as possible and create a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

If your child is invited on a play date be meticulous about punctuality (turn up on time to pick them up), and accept that you must reciprocate, preferably in short order. It’s never a bad idea to give your child a quick manners run-down before they go on a play date: remember to say please and thank you; do what xxxxx’s mum tells you; don’t help yourself to food from the fridge; take off your shoes and/or don’t put your feet on the furniture etc.

Follow these simple recommendations to ensure that play dates go with a swing:

•Share the pick-up

The general assumption is that one parent shouldn’t have to do the pick-up and drop off. So, unless they’re insistent, arrange that you’ll pick up your child – it’s good to show that you’re willing to share the burden of shuttling kids back and forth.

•Think about entertainment

Inevitably the tv will play some part in the afternoon’s activities, but you really don’t want the children to come in from school, slump in front of the television and simply stay there. A play date involves ‘play’, so by all means let them decompress in front of the television for 30 minutes, but then encourage them to do something else. That might mean sorting out some options beforehand: Lego, board games, dressing up box, garden games etc. Have plenty of suggestions to hand.

•Leave them alone

Within reason, leave them to their own devices. Your child will be keen to show a new friend their bedroom, toys etc and they’re much more likely to bond without an adult onlooker. Just be alert to ominous silences…

•Relax your rules

You don’t want to spend the entire afternoon telling off someone else’s child so, within reason, try and be relaxed and flexible about your own rules. You might find their table manners lacking but haranguing them for putting their elbows on the table or holding the fork incorrectly is hardly going to make you, or your child, popular. Don’t let your standards slip completely – it will confuse your own child. If, for example, you find guests helping themselves to food from your fridge or changing your tv channels, and that behaviour is forbidden in your own home, then be firm and insist that they ask you first. Inevitably, some behaviour will just be unacceptably transgressive (eg fighting); in this case, try and intervene in a firm, non-judgmental way and, if possible, use humour to deflect any criticism. You don’t want to get the reputation of being a frightening parent.

•Check out allergies and intolerances

Parents will inevitably keep you fully informed about their children’s dietary needs but double-check beforehand when you’re making the arrangements for the play date – it shows you’re taking it seriously and acting responsibly.

•Check out food fads

At this point you could also check out if the child has any violent likes and dislikes and do your best to accommodate them, within reason. If you are informed that the child has a ridiculously restricted diet, or one that you regard as unhealthy, bite your tongue. This is not the place for missionary zeal and the best you can do is provide the preferred foods (or a version of them), even if you don’t really approve of them.

•Don’t overthink the meal

Accept that, whatever you provide, you may be confronted by a child who stubbornly refuses to eat. Or your child’s friend might obstinately eschew all greens and fruit and healthy options. In these circumstances, it is best to put your own dietary preoccupations aside; don’t insist they “eat up their greens”, as you would with your own child. Just accept their choices and remind yourself you’ve done your best. Provide bread and butter and hope that, if the worst comes to the worst, the child will at least be able to eat that. Remember, no child is going to starve if he/she refuses the food you’re offering. Don’t overcompensate by overloading the children with fizzy drinks, crisps, biscuits and cakes – it will only make them hyper.

Children's Teatime Favourites

Fishfingers or fishcakes
Spaghetti Bolognese
Macaroni cheese
Shepherd’s pie
Roast chicken
Homemade burger
Corn on the cob
Baked potatoes

The Tyranny of the Tick

Most people carry smartphones and nearly half the UK population (30.1 million people) use WhatsApp. For many of us, the group chat facility is an invaluable tool, and the speed and convenience of instant text messaging is a great asset. But what about the double tick? WhatsApp provides a handy guide to the status of outgoing messages, indicating that they have been sent by their servers (one grey tick), delivered to the recipient’s device (two grey ticks), and read (two blue ticks). It is the latter facility that is causing anxiety, especially as many WhatsApp users have their ‘online’ status turned on, so paranoid senders can verify that the recipient is online but can also confirm that their message has not been read.

This minor conundrum has led to a new form of social anxiety. People now track the progress of their messages and can compute, in real time, the response lag. A long wait in grey tick land might indicate that the sender is seen as a bore, or a nuisance, or someone who is not prioritised. Some people feel that waiting for their double ticks to turn blue is akin to knocking at a closed, and unanswered door, when you are well aware that the resident is at home and has even glimpsed you through the window. The gap between the holy grail of the double blue tick and the response can now be accurately calibrated, and many people are disappointed to find that there is nothing ‘instant’ about the messaging; they have effectively been pushed to one side or deprioritised and a response is a long time coming.

Of course, these anxieties may very well be ill-founded. The recipient may be someone who checks messages and defers answering them until a more convenient time, or simply a chronic procrastinator who is temperamentally incapable of giving a prompt response to anyone. There may well be good reasons for waiting to reply: the recipient might be awaiting further information, or hoping to hear from a third party etc. It is foolish to immediately leap to the most negative of conclusions.

However, there are ways in which some of these anxieties can be allayed:

•Defer Reading
If you receive a WhatsApp message and you know you won’t have time to reply to it promptly, don’t open it. If you leave it alone, it will register as being ‘unseen’ and the sender won’t worry that their message is being ignored.

•Change your online status
You can always go into your Settings and under ‘Privacy’ you can hide your online status, so that your contacts do not know whether you are available. This might also be a good way of assuaging their anxiety about slow responses.

•Reply promptly
The simplest thing of all is to reply promptly to all messages. It’s polite, it’s responsive and it means there are no troubling lacunae in your communications. Even if you just send a line to say you’ll be replying properly in due course, it will set the sender’s mind at rest, and is therefore considerate behaviour.

•Jettison the ticks
If you feel you’re becoming increasingly neurotic about the whole world of text messaging, it is quite easy to turn off the blue ticks by going to your Privacy settings and turning off “Read receipts”. This radical solution may well be simplest way of easing any paranoia about ignoring or being ignored. Like much new technology, the ticks provide a useful function, but they are not universally appreciated or needed, and if they don’t work for you, the best decision is to tailor the app to your own communication style.

•Resist the temptation to hound recipients
It can be tempting to bombard obdurate recipients, especially if they are advertised as being online, with “Are you there?” or “I need an answer” messages. This can very soon look frantic or desperate and might very well drive your interlocutor underground. If you feel compelled to chase up non-replies, it might be better to choose a different medium, such as a text or email, and then to innocently ask “I wonder if you got my WhatsApp message?”

•Switch to voice message
If you really do need an answer and you’re getting increasingly frustrated, you could always send a voice message in WhatsApp and suggest that the recipient replies in kind. You can say, at the beginning of your own voice message, that you are using this medium because it’s quicker and simpler, especially if everyone is very busy.

•It’s not you it’s me!
If you are experiencing some persistent non-replies to your messages, it might be time to look at your own messaging style. Are your messages too frequent? Are they too vague? Are they passive-aggressive or just outright confrontational? It’s quite possible that you’re not getting replies because you’re not communicating politely or effectively, and your recipients would rather go to ground than engage in a rapid-fire dialogue with you. We’re all busy and under pressure, so long, rambling messages may well fill some recipients with despair. If you need a response from your recipients, try and ask pithy questions, which can simply be answered in the affirmative or negative. Work hard to write texts that are quick to read, easy to understand, concise and comprehensible; you may well find that they rarely languish unanswered.

The Ubiquity of Swearing

Four-letter words, previously considered dire obscenities, are increasingly part of everyday speech. We’re all swearing more and, unsurprisingly, the more our language is peppered with swear words, the more tolerant we become. In 2020 the broadcasting regulator Ofcom reported that complaints about swearing had halved in five years; in the following year, anti-swearing complaints accounted for just one per cent of the total.

Scientists agree that swearing can increase sweating and raise heart rate. They also attest that it has the magic power of boosting the tolerance of pain, while reducing the perception of pain (unsurprisingly, swearing is a natural reaction to many painful household accidents). Its disinhibiting power can allow us to discard feelings of restraint and self-control and, as such, it can be liberating. It can be used to express rage and aggression; in many cases a few expletives can discharge angry feelings, preventing a descent into actual violence.

Increasingly, swearing is used freely in everyday speech to express irritation, incredulity, disappointment or despair. It can also be used to add emphasis or reinforce a statement. The profanities are not directed at other people, but at situations or events that have proved to be challenging or overwhelmingly frustrating. Used in this way, swear words are becoming more tolerated: earlier this year an employment judge, who was hearing a case of unfair dismissal, ruled that the use of the phrase “I don’t give a f***” in a tense meeting was “commonplace” and did not carry the “shock value” that it would have done in times gone by.

In addition, words that were previously considered offensive or obscene are now often being used as punctuation, a drearily repetitive interjection in the most banal of sentences. As with many filler words (‘um’, ‘ah,’ ‘like’, ‘you know’), the user is barely conscious that they are using them; to the listener they come across as irritating interruptions, making the user sound inarticulate. In the case of filler swear words, however, some listeners might also find the repetitive, unthinking use of them quite offensive, especially if they are from an older generation that regarded these words as taboo.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that swearing is now universally accepted and tolerated, and it is advisable to try and develop some self-consciousness when it comes to deploying abusive language. It’s all about context. In some workplaces, social groups or families, swearing is the norm: words that would have made our grandparents blanche are thrown about with cheerful disinhibition and, because that is the prevailing atmosphere, offence is not taken. Even if you are not a frequent swearer yourself, you should try to adjust to this environment, make concessions, and ignore the bad language. If you find it intolerable, you should politely raise your concerns, pointing out that it is making you feel “very uncomfortable”. This complaint might introduce an element of self-consciousness into the inveterate swearers; of course, there is a risk that they will simply see you a priggish and over-sensitive.

In a work context, you need to be careful. While swearing might be part of the office culture, you should be cautious about using four-letter words when you are talking to bosses or management. In any situation where there is a clear hierarchy, people near the top of the tree feel that their position means that they should command respect. It is still quite common to find swearing indicative of disrespect and it is therefore risky to use profanities when you are interacting with someone who has a higher status.

Public figures who should command respect – politicians, judges, broadcasters etc – should avoid swearing when they are in a public forum. They are expected to adhere to higher standards than the rest of us and, as such, their lapses into demotic need to be very carefully controlled – no public figure wants to find themselves being beeped out on the nightly news. More importantly, if people in the public eye use swear words they come across as intemperate and out of control, which will damage their reputation. It is much more effective to manifest icy, well-articulated anger and disappointment when a challenging situation arises.

If you are a parent and you find that your children have picked up the swearing habit and are really running with it, now is the time to intervene. Of course, swearing will be rife amongst their peer group and the chances of excising the bad language are very small. But at least you can drum some notion of context into their heads. When they swear in front of you, pick up on it; when they’re off to visit their grandparents, warn them that older people might find their language offensive. You could even make a family project of reducing swearing: admit that you’d like to improve your language as well and introduce a swear box, where offenders pay a small cash penalty. The most important thing is to make them aware of what they are saying, to alert them to the fact that it is potentially distasteful, and to point out that the habit might well be detrimental when they move into the world of work.

In general, think before you swear and don’t allow yourself to become a swearing automaton who can barely distinguish acceptable from offensive language. Be alert to context and always assess new situations before you unleash your worst language. If you judge the situation to be antithetical to disinhibited swearing, but then lose your concentration and lapse into obscenities, apologise immediately (“please excuse my bad language”) and you will avoid giving offence.

The Perils of 24/7

The digital revolution has transformed our access to each other and, as we acquire ever more tablets, laptops, mobiles and wearable smartwatches, many of us feel permanently monitored, reachable and on-call. Technology has broken down the conventional barriers between work life and home life and opened the floodgate to an alarming new world of round-the-clock availability.

With limitless availability there comes an expectation that working round the clock, pulling all-nighters, responding to emails in the early hours of morning and calling colleagues at the weekend are all positive signs of extreme dedication and productivity. But scientists argue that the opposite is true: the more the barriers between work and play dissolve, the more our stress levels rise and the more liable we are to burn-out, exhaustion and poor performance. The relentless culture of 24/7 working is proving to be counterproductive. Workaholics beware…

Many people who claim they do not work around the clock operate instead in the twilight world of being “on call”. They may claim that they are not actually working at certain times of the day, but they are in fact poised and ready to leap into action as soon as they receive a notification on their phone, ready to troubleshoot if there is a midnight crisis, willing to drop whatever they’re doing and switch into professional mode. This half-life is probably the worst option of all because it means that they can never detach fully from work and do not experience the time when they are notionally away from work as being their own.

In addition, different time zones play havoc with workers’ schedules, as there is an expectation that they will make themselves available for conference calls and so on with colleagues who are based in different continents. Where once, communication between geographically distant colleagues would have been restricted to easily managed emails, video calls and conferences are now an option, and many people feel they must accommodate these requirements, even if it means staying up until after midnight or getting up at the crack of dawn.

Remote working has compounded these difficulties, as the divisions between home and work life are porous and workers may feel that they need to demonstrate endless availability to justify the comparative freedom and flexibility of working from home. But office workers are also not immune from this new plague. Even though their hours of work might be well-defined, there is frequently still an expectation that they are reachable “after hours”.

We all need to secure a healthy balance between our home and family life and our workaday world, so follow these recommendations to beat the 24/7 pressure:

•Set fixed work hours
It is always a good idea to set fixed work hours. This means deciding on your office hours and communicating them to the wider world. You could add them too your website and/or spell them out on your email footer. Making them clear will discourage out-of-hours calls. If you have international colleagues or clients, there will obviously be exceptions to these rules, but you can negotiate contact separately (and keep quiet about it).

•Don’t count the hours
You might find it helpful to move to a task-orientated working week (this is particularly applicable to remote workers). Instead of following the old-fashioned notion of “clocking in” to work, you should set yourself a number of weekly tasks that need to be completed. You may find that you complete your tasks in record time, in which case you will have more leisure. On other occasions you may find you have under-estimated, and you will need to put in some extra hours. But it is swings and roundabouts and probably evens out over time. In addition, if you adhere to this working practice, you will be able to enjoy a weekly sense of achievement.

•Schedule your week
Start each week by planning out the days in detail. That means going through each day on an hour-by-hour basis and allocating a time block for each task. It also means setting out periods of time when you’re not working, when you can enjoy family time, have lunch with friends, exercise etc. Build in some “contingency time” in case something unexpected crops up, which will ensure that you don’t impinge on your leisure time.  Adhere to your timetable.

•Learn to unplug
Smartphones are fatal because they keep us plugged in to the world of work and very few of us can resist the siren call of their notifications. Given that checking your phone every few minutes is an addiction for most of us, it is a good idea to give yourself the radical challenge of switching off the phone (or turning off notifications) for certain periods of the day. Think about when you least want to be on call – perhaps it’s the children’s bedtime, or when you’re cooking and eating dinner, or streaming movies in the evening – and make it a habit to unplug. Unless your job requires immediate responses (eg you’re a doctor on call or a duty solicitor), this strategy will not have earth-shattering consequences and will buy you a measure of peace and tranquillity.

•Consider others
Even if you’re a driven, 24/7 workaholic, who thinks nothing of sitting at your computer in the wee small hours or slaving away on a summer’s weekend, you need to think about other people before you make demands of them. As you reach for your phone or open your email, teach yourself to pause for a moment. Look at the clock: is it after 6pm or before 9am? These are usual working hours, (although of course some people choose earlier starts and later finishes) and should always be your default notion of when it is appropriate to call. If you have considered the time, but still judge that it is urgent to speak to a colleague after-hours, don’t take their time for granted. Start the call by acknowledging that you’re aware it’s late (or early) and apologise for the inconvenience.

Back to School

The summer holidays are nearly over and it’s time to contemplate sending your children back to school. The last few days of the holidays are a good time to prepare for the coming term: children respond well to routines and rituals and feel much more comfortable when they know what to expect. Here are some constructive ways in which you can prepare for the start of the school year:

•Work on a good sleeping routine

The holidays will inevitably have been disruptive – children will have had sleepovers, gone to stay with relatives, gone on holiday, or simply been allowed to stay up late. Now is the time to ensure that they’re well rested and have plenty of energy for the weeks ahead, so start to introduce a sensible weekday bedtime and reinstate relaxing bedtime rituals, like baths, book-reading and storytelling.

•Get meals back on track

Much like disrupted sleeping, holidays can be murderous when it comes to healthy eating. Children are given endless snacks and treats, there are lots of meals out, regular mealtimes are disrupted by holiday activities. Now is the time to get your child back into a sensible eating routine. Agree on a healthy breakfast and ensure that they get up early enough to enjoy it and try to provide a regular evening meal at the same time each evening. If your child has a packed lunch, think about ways in which you can smuggle healthy options into the lunchbox, so that you don’t fall back on sugar-filled snacks.

•Get everything ready

Most children enjoy acquiring items for their new school year, such as pencil cases, school bags and lunch boxes. You will probably also have to buy new items of school uniform for fast-growing children. Encourage young children to try on the uniform so they do not get anxious about awkward buttons and zips. Getting all these items in the days before the school term starts is a good way of introducing the reality of the new school term to your child.

•Talk to your child

In the few days before school begins, talk to your child about the upcoming term. Ask them what they’re looking forward to and try to find out what is worrying them, if anything. Reassure them that you’ll be on hand and that it’s your job to make sure their school life is successful and fulfilling.

•Revive friendships

It’s quite possible that schoolfriends have not been around much during the summer holidays and now is the time to get in contact with their parents and suggest a play date. If they see each other before the term starts, they will be able to rejuvenate their friendship and your child will be reassured by their presence at school.

•Reassure anxious children

Sometimes children experience real anxiety in the run-up to school, so it can be a good idea to walk them past the school building, talk to them about the morning routine, explain how drop-offs and pick-ups will work. It will help them to know that you’ve got it all under control.

•Prepare the night before

It really helps allay children’s anxiety if you prepare everything the night before, especially on the first day of term. That means getting the school uniform ready, packing the school bag, assembling lunch boxes. Even laying the table for breakfast is a reassuring sight.

•Manage your own anxiety

Sending children off to school (especially for the first time) is an important rite of passage for most parents. Gradually easing them into independence is the goal, but it is all too easy to be smothering and over-anxious. Work hard at appearing robust and positive and don’t make too much of a fuss about what a big step your child is undertaking – this will stir up emotions (both yours and your child’s), whereas what you really need to do is to normalise the whole experience so that they take it in their stride.

How to be a Respectable Parent

• Turn up for regular meetings with the teacher. Pleading that you’re ‘too busy’ to discuss your child’s progress will be a real black mark against you.

• Always respond to any requests that come from the school, and promptly (double-check that you’re on any relevant WhatsApp groups for your child’s class and look out for emails from the school).

• Always turn up for end of term concerts, school plays, carol services etc. Your child will care desperately if you don’t attend.

• Give a little time to the school – it may be manning a stall at the school fete, putting together a newsletter in the evenings, or helping out on a school trip.

•Try your best to answer all appeals for help from the school - be it for cash contributions, food for the harvest festival, old clothes for school plays, gifts for a sister school in Africa.

•Never storm into the school at the end of the day and berate your child’s teacher. If you have a concern, always make an appointment.

•Never embarrass your child in front of his/her fellow pupils or teacher. Behaviour that is acceptable in the privacy of your own home may be absolutely mortifying in a school context.

Brush up Your Restaurant Behaviour

Eating out these days can be an expensive treat and it is understandable that customers expect to be well treated and looked after. However, paying for a meal never entitles restaurant diners to be rude, and there are many ways in which inconsiderate and thoughtless behaviour can really mar the restaurant experience, both for yourself and for other diners. Take a look at our restaurant recommendations to ensure that you will never give offence:

•Research beforehand
These days it’s so easy to quickly check out a restaurant online before committing to it. That way, you will be able to see sample menus and you can decide if it’s offering you a suitable type of food and price range. It would be foolish to invite a vegan to a restaurant that proudly trumpets its meaty credentials. By the same token, researching beforehand will ensure that you’re not completely floored by the prices and forced to order a tiny meal because you can’t afford a main course.

•Respect the Menu
The menus are there for a reason. They represent the food that the restaurant is offering, reflecting the availability of seasonal ingredients and the chef’s particular skills and specialities. You should therefore confine yourself to ordering from the menu, unless – because of allergies or intolerances – you need to substitute or withhold one particular ingredient. Asking for something that is not featured on the menu at all is not a display of power or rugged individuality, it is simply rude and over-demanding.

•Adhere to the Booking
If you’ve booked a table for eight at 9pm it is understandably disruptive to turn up at 10pm with a party of twelve. Whilst most restaurants will do their utmost to accommodate you (it’s in their interests after all), you are being extremely inconsiderate. They may well have to juggle numbers, re-allocate seats to other diners, move tables around. And if you’re over 45 minutes late you really can’t expect busy restaurants to hold your table – they quite understandably will assume you’re not coming and be anxious to reassign the table. It’s always best to communicate changes of plan by phone, or to send an email message. Finally, if you’ve booked a table outside and the evening is less than balmy, you do not have an automatic right to be moved inside. There may well not be room, and you have made your choice at your own risk.

•Never be a no-show diner
If you book, you should turn up. If you can’t do so, you should cancel beforehand. It’s extremely rude to just ignore your booking and go elsewhere – restaurants plan for a certain number of diners each evening and may even have turned other people away to accommodate you. By the same token, if you have booked for a large party and have ended up with half your planned number, let the restaurant know beforehand. They will appreciate the opportunity to re-allocate tables and may be able to accommodate more walk-up diners.

•It’s a restaurant not a studio
We all know that some diners feel compelled to post pictures of every meal on Instagram, but if you’re going to take pictures, do so discreetly and don’t disturb other diners or get in the way of busy waiters. Standing up and walking around the table to get the perfect bird’s eye view of your plate, or fiddling around with the lighting so your meal is sufficiently illuminated can immediately disrupt an atmosphere of candlelit serenity.

•Don’t muddle up dislikes and intolerances
While it’s perfectly acceptable to flag up allergies and intolerances when you’re booking a table or when you arrive in a restaurant, it is extremely irritating if you confuse “intolerance” (an inability to digest certain types of food) with simply disliking certain foods. This tendency is particularly irksome when a person who has decreed that they have an intolerance undergoes a change of heart at the restaurant, tucking into the delicious home-cooked bread (despite a supposed gluten intolerance), and being tempted by the home-made ice-cream (even though they made a fuss about being lactose intolerant). Restaurants take real allergies and intolerances very seriously and may find making meals that adhere to these restrictions creates a lot of extra work. Being messed around by people who are merely experimenting with dietary fads is a real waste of time.

•Communicate with your waiter
A successful restaurant meal involves establishing a congenial relationship with your waiter. The best way to do this is to talk to the waiter directly, ask polite questions, seek advice or explanations. If you’ve finished your bottle of wine, signal your waiter to bring another, don’t put your empty bottle upside-down in the wine-cooler – a peremptory gesture that might be overlooked. If you’re getting fretful because your meal is taking a long time to arrive, make polite enquiries. You will have a much better evening if you talk directly to your waiters, make courteous requests, and don’t expect them to anticipate your every need.

A bank holiday bonanza

The August bank holiday dates to 1871 and was seen as a chance for us to make the most of the summer. Until 1971 it always took place on the first Monday of August, but it was moved to the last Monday because it clashed with the traditional two-week factory shut down in the first half of the month. In the early 19th century, the British enjoyed a generous 33 holidays per year, mainly comprising saints’ days and religious festivals, but in 1834 the number of holidays was brutally axed to just four. In 1871 the Liberal politician and banker Sir John Lubbock introduced the Bank Holidays Act, which made these four bank holidays official. Today, most of the UK now has eight bank holidays per year.

The August bank holiday is bittersweet: it signals the end of the summer holidays and, with the new school term on the horizon, a “back-to-school” feeling permeates the celebrations. It is also seen by many as a last chance to grab a break, so it is notorious for being extremely busy, with traffic jams, standing room-only trains and overwhelmed airports being the norm. While it takes place in late summer, British weather does not always oblige: many August bank holidays are marred by grey skies and torrential rain.

All these factors can create a certain amount of strain, especially for frazzled parents who have been juggling work and childcare for the past few weeks or providing counselling and consolation to traumatised teenagers who have received disappointing exam results. But a final relaxing long weekend before the rigours of autumn is beneficial to us all and it is important that we maximise the benefits of this bank holiday and don’t fall victim to over-ambitious expectations or unrealistic plans.

Bank Holiday Transport

If you are planning to get away, accept that public transport will be extremely overcrowded. If you haven’t managed to secure reservations in advance, allow plenty of extra time because terminals and stations will be extremely busy. Travel with plenty of food and drink and make sure you have packed supplies of entertaining toys, books, games consoles etc for young children.

If you are driving use online journey planners to anticipate roadworks and delays and try and time your journey so that you are travelling at off-peak times (very early morning and mid to late evening). Avoid the mayhem of motorway service stations and instead pack a delicious picnic, which you can enjoy in a scenic spot away from the crowds.

Provide in-car entertainment if you’re travelling as a family. Restless children might appreciate travel games, colouring books and pencils, or an electronic device on which they can play games or watch films (beware travel sickness). Or you can fall back on old favourites such as I-Spy. A well-chosen playlist or entertaining podcast will make the journey more pleasant. If possible, share the driving and take plenty of breaks – the desire to reach your destination can be overwhelming, but it’s foolish to overdo it. Nobody wants their bank holiday weekend to be marred by epic rows or bickering brought on by transport pressures.

Bank Holiday Entertaining

If you’re staying at home, you may well be entertaining friends or family over the bank holiday period. Because it is a holiday weekend, and you want to make it extra special, you might have set your expectations unrealistically high. Think carefully about numbers and don’t overreach yourself: filling your house with guests, many of whom will have to sleep on sofas or in children’s rooms, may feel like a hospitable idea, but remember there will be a great deal of mess and disruption as well as laundry and food preparation, and only take on large numbers if you have a day or two free at the end to recover and tidy up.

If you’re having friends round for meals over the weekend, you will ideally want to exploit the late summer and eat al fresco, or enjoy a garden barbecue. As always in this country, it is wise to plan for contingencies and to ensure that you can move the whole party indoors if there is rain.

If you’re entertaining large groups of people, it’s always a good idea to accept offers of help. Whether they’re bringing a salad or pudding, or simply offering to come early and help with last-minute food preparation, having a helping hand can really help to relieve the strain.

Strive for conviviality, rather than perfection. As at Christmas, bank holidays can bring unrealistic notions of lavish meals, happy families, delightful dinners, sunny garden parties – all much aided and abetted by tv advertising campaigns. Accept the August bank holiday for what it is: an extra day off before the Autumn term and the Christmas break.

Bank Holiday Relaxing

There should be no feeling of obligation to see family and friends over the bank holiday weekend – if you feel that the long summer holidays have worn you out and that you need a bit of down time before the return to the school or work routine, this is the perfect time to switch off, lounge in your garden, eat easy picnic food and enjoy local and easy-to-access attractions. Don’t let other people guilt-trip you into social commitments that you really can’t face.

If you have small children, now is a good time to gradually introduce routines back into their lives in preparation for the school term, which is just a week away. Focus on bedtimes and regular meals and discuss the upcoming term and new starts – this is a good time to fill your children with a sense of excitement and anticipation about what lies ahead.

Above all, recharge your batteries, relax and enjoy the last days of summer…

Ladies Who Lunch

Image: The Corner Table, Irving Ramsey Wiles

Inviting people around to lunch – whether it is a roast meal on a Sunday or a much more improvised affair in the middle of the week – is seen nowadays as a routine act of hospitality. Lunch is a flexible affair: it can be casual, it can encompass a varied array and number of guests, food requirements can be comparatively unambitious. For all these reasons, it is an excellent form of home entertaining for busy people who are daunted by the more ambitious dinner party.

In the 18th century it was normal to eat the main meal in the mid- to late-afternoon, but by the turn of the 19th century the main meal had been pushed back to 6 or 7pm. Ladies, who were finding the long interval between breakfast and dinner onerous, had established luncheon as a regular meal, not an occasional one, by about 1810. The industrial revolution, and developments in public transport during the 19th century meant that people began to work further from home, eating a light midday meal at their workplace. The main meal, still usually called dinner, was pushed to the evening hours after work, when they could get home for a full repast. As gas lighting and electricity began to be a feature of homes in the 19th century, the dinner hour was pushed even further back, with dinner at around 8pm–9pm becoming the norm in some households.

Manners and Rules of Good Society by “A member of the Aristocracy”, which was published in 1916, gives us some fascinating insights on lunch. Its opening remarks on the subject of lunch explicitly link the meal to the lateness of the dinner hour:

The lateness of the dinner-hour in a measure accounts for the position now taken by luncheon in the day’s programme, joined to the fact that it offers another opportunity for social gatherings; and as the prevailing idea seems to be to crowd into one day as much amusement and variety and change as possible, invitations to luncheon have become one of the features of social life.”

The author also reiterates that lunch is predominantly an affair for ladies, mainly because men work during the day and are therefore otherwise engaged, although some “idle” gentlemen are characterised as eating a late breakfast, thereby making lunch redundant:

The predominance of ladies at luncheon is due to the fact that the majority of gentlemen are too much occupied at this hour to be at liberty to accept invitations to luncheon, while others, more idle, breakfast at so late an hour that to them a two o’clock luncheon is a farce as far as eating is concerned.”

The main attractions of lunch, as far as the author is concerned, is the comparatively informal social mores. She points out that the hostess at liberty to make general conversation with both sides of the table, rather than being monopolised by the guests of honour who would sit on either side of the hostess at a formal dinner. Without the inflexible strictures about guest numbers and compatibility demanded by the formal dinner, she can invite a great variety of guests, who may not fit into the more rigid social planning and protocol that dictated dinner party planning: “young ladies, single ladies, elderly ladies, ladies coming to town, or into the neighbourhood for a few days only.” Ladies’ luncheons were able to embrace social misfits and anomalies, who generally found themselves excluded from more formal dinners.

Other general guidelines are, as usual, quite prescriptive: “In Town the usual hour for Luncheon is 1.30 to 2 o’clock; in the country it is generally half an hour earlier.”  In addition, “there is no going in to luncheon, conventionally speaking, save on official and public occasions”, which means that the guests were conducted from the drawing room, where they gathered on arrival, to the dining room by a servant, and did not proceed arm in arm according to a strict order of precedence.

At the lunch table, ladies were expected “not to remove their hats at luncheon. They should remove their fur coats and wraps. These should either be left in the hall on arrival or taken off in the drawing-room or dining-room. Short gloves should be removed; elbow gloves may be retained.”

The whole affair was kept reasonably short and guests were not encouraged to linger: “Coffee is sometimes served after luncheon in the drawing-room. It is handed on a salver immediately after luncheon. The most usual way now, however, is to have coffee brought into the dining-room at the conclusion of luncheon, and handed to the guests on a salver. The guests are not expected to remain longer than twenty minutes after the adjournment to the drawing-room has been made.”

It is interesting to note that these guidelines, formulated over a century ago, underpin many of our attitudes to informal entertaining today. When it comes to inviting guests to our house – whether it is for lunch, an informal supper or a dinner party – we have in general discarded the whole paraphernalia of formality that characterised Victorian dining. For the most part, we are not sticklers about placement; we do not insist on neat guest lists with even numbers of couples, and “spare men” provided for single women; we do not respect protocol or precedence. All these rules are now only respected at extremely formal dinners, often hosted by an organisation such as a livery company, charity, corporation or business.

The “ladies’ lunch”, which was an established feature of social life in the late 19th and early 20th century has become the model for modern informal dining. While most of us still find the rules about gloves and hats amusingly anachronistic, we would certainly recognise the easy informality of the guest list, the relaxed attitude to seating plans, and the decision to dispense entirely with the notion of gentlemen “taking ladies down” to the dining room.

The ladies who devised the notion of luncheon during the Victorian era were taking the first steps towards the relaxation of rigid rules and hidebound conventions and embracing an easy-going conviviality, which has become the aspiration of contemporary hosts. For them, discarding the formal rules of dining must have seemed innovative and exciting; these days, most of us will have no memory of the stuffy conventions observed by our ancestors and laid-back informality has become the norm.

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