Preserving the peace (and quiet)...

We live in a noisy world: jets fly overhead; juggernauts accelerate outside our window; engine noise is a constant background hum; sirens wail. Even when we retreat into interior public spaces, anxious to escape the cacophony of street noise, we must deal with “background” music played at top volume, broadcast announcements, loud conversations.

It’s true that, outside our own homes, we have little control over most of these causes of noise pollution, but we can take responsibility for our own noise levels; that means modulating the volume of the voice and being very circumspect about the volume and noise leakage of our various devices. Of course, you do not have to slip silently through the shadows, never emitting any sound louder than a barely audible whisper. As with all good manners, adjusting your own volume is about being self-aware and observant, judging the situation in which you find yourself, and ensuring that your noise output is not going to cause inconvenience or distress for the people around you.

• In Restaurants and Bars

Many venues play music at an unfeasibly loud level of amplification, which is compounded by hard echoing surfaces such as wooden floors. Inevitably, voices are raised to counteract background noise and you are soon shouting to make yourself heard. In many places this is inevitable, and you have to accept the hubbub with good grace. But if you are in a tranquil restaurant or a pub where locals are enjoying quiet conversation at the bar, you should be very aware of the volume of your voice.

We all tend to shout as we become more animated and excited, or to emit loud, shrill laughter. Look around you, assess the situation and try to dial down the noise level – lower your voice and test whether your companions can hear you. If they’re constantly cupping their ears, asking you to repeat yourself, or looking confused and disengaged, then you’ve overdone it, and you will have to adjust accordingly. If one member of your party is very loud, it’s quite acceptable to politely point this out. Don’t assign blame, just say, “I think we should keep our voices down – it’s very quiet in here and we’re probably disturbing other people.”

• On Public Transport

Most people on buses and trains tend to close themselves off in their own world, lost in their phones, laptops or books and quite possibly also wearing headphones or earbuds. If you are travelling with somebody, then you may well want to talk but remember to keep your voice down and don’t distract an entire train carriage with your conversation. The same rules apply if you are having a conversation on your phone; lower your voice and, if reception is poor on the bus or train, don’t respond by shouting ever louder, just explain where you are and suggest that you’ll talk later.

Remember, commuter journeys are much more likely to be hushed and silent, especially on trains. People are preparing for, or recovering from, a day’s work and want to retreat into silent contemplation, and this should be respected. You may find journeys in the middle of the day, when trains and buses are packed with families, kids and gangs of friends, are much noisier and you will simply have to accept that this is the case and arm yourself with headphones. At any time of day, it goes without saying that you should respect “quiet zones”, mute your devices and take a vow of silence.

Finally, if you’re one of the self-contained passengers who is communing with their device, always use effective headphones that will block any sound from escaping. It is the height of anti-social behaviour to listen to music or watch a video without headphones, or to hold a phone away from your ear when conversing, inflicting both sides of your conversation on neighbours. This may seem self-evident, but it is happening with increasing frequency.

• Other Public Spaces

There are certain public spaces where, by mutual consent, noise should be kept to a minimum. If you are visiting art galleries or museums, it is perfectly acceptable to chat with your companion, but the expectation is that you will do so in a low, discreet murmur, so that you do not distract other visitors. Chatting on mobile phones should also be avoided.

It is fine to chat quietly while you are waiting for a film, performance or play to begin, but there is a strong presumption that you will be silent during the performance or screening and, if for some reason, you feel that you have to say something to your companion, you will do so in a barely audible whisper. We’ve all been to cinemas, for example, where some members of the audience behave as if they were in their own sitting room, chatting audibly throughout the film. This is the height of bad manners, as it takes no account of the situation or the comfort of other audience members.

• At Work

Open plan offices are increasingly common, and while they can be great spaces in which to communicate and work as a team, they can also be very noisy and distracting. It is sensible when planning an open plan layout to take noise into consideration: locate the kitchen, which is always a focal point for conviviality, away from the main space; provide meeting rooms or ‘break-out’ rooms for occasions when conversation is imperative; create a layout where people are encouraged to get up and move around – don’t block in desks so that people feel obliged to shout across the room.

Don’t be the office loudmouth. Restrict yourself to quiet conversations with your immediate neighbours and take yourself into the kitchen (or any other designated area) if you’re having an animated chat. Never shout across the room to get a colleague’s attention: it’s always better to walk over to their desk or even send them a quick text. If you’ve got a video call booked, use your headphones and warn your neighbours, and try to keep the volume of your voice down. You really shouldn’t need to shout if you’re using sophisticated modern phones and computers.

You might feel that music while you work is an excellent way of enhancing energy or signalling that the weekend is approaching, but you should never inflict it on your colleagues. There will always be someone desperately trying to concentrate, or who has entirely different musical tastes and is being slowly driven mad by your playlist. Remember, if in doubt, always use headphones.

How to overcome phone phobia

Our means of communication are multiplying, offering us a growing range of choices – texting, emails, messaging apps, video calls, chatbots – but increasingly we’re steering clear of the humble phone.

In a work context many of us argue that communicating by digital means offers us a range of advantages: it enables us to multitask, to work when and where we please, to pause for thought and consideration, without having to come up with an instantaneous response. Above all, communicating in these ways gives us a feeling of control: we are setting the agenda, choosing when to respond and giving ourselves a sense of psychological distance, which may help to relieve the stress we feel when we are bombarded by information and requests all day long.

In a social context, phone calls are also in decline. Many people find their phones intrusive, preferring to switch them to silent, and to communicate by text or message. It is increasingly common to use text messages to arrange phone calls at a set time, thereby asserting control over the phone, rather than letting its insistent ringing rule our lives. We are beginning to feel hesitant about spontaneously picking up the phone and making a call – we project our own desire to control input on to others and choose more circuitous routes of communication.

Many of us also find ourselves reluctant to use the phone when we are administering our own lives. If we have a query about our bills, our broadband contract, our bank account, or if we have a customer complaint, we tend to hide behind the anonymity of the online complaint form or the chatbot, opting to avoid direct connection with another human being. This tendency is greatly magnified by many companies’ phone systems, which seem to be designed to deter all contact by putting up barriers such as multiple menus, automated answering, and protracted waiting times (with or without musical accompaniment). The more we avoid using the phone, the less appealing phone calls become; we find ourselves turning phone phobic, always attempting to find other routes to access information and help.

Yet, despite the benefits and effectiveness of digital forms of communication, using the phone can be the most practical way of getting things done. It is a well-tested and universally available tool, which does not require computer equipment, programs, or a reliable WiFi connection. A phone call will circumvent unnecessary bureaucracy and obfuscation – anyone who has had to wade through an epic email thread will know how very easily the nub of the matter can be buried or obscured. Providing you get through to the right person, a phone call is also gratifyingly direct; questions can be asked and answered, clarification can be sought, a course of action can be agreed – all in the space of a few minutes and without an intervening and protracted layer of written circumlocution.

Above all, a phone call is person-to-person. It gives you a chance to experience a moment of human connection, to exchange pleasantries, or comment on the weather. You will be able to respond to the tones and nuances of the human voice, convey subtle feelings of friendliness, gratitude, frustration or irritation that would be completely lost in a text exchange. Phone calls are an excellent way of communicating humorously, deploying irony and self-deprecation, which is much more open to misinterpretation in writing. This will allow you to build up a constructive rapport, which will inevitably expedite the business in hand.

Phone calls are also an ideal way to make discreet enquiries or circumvent official channels, bearing in mind that we do not always want all our communications to be recorded for posterity, or forwarded to other people. They allow us to be diplomatic and strategic.

We are lucky enough to be able to choose from many different types of communication; it would be a great pity if the phone is overlooked. If you feel you’re suffering from incipient phone phobia, try the following:

• Take calls more frequently – don’t let every incoming call go straight through to voicemail; if you recognise the number pick up the call. This will prevent you becoming rusty and may help you to avoid phone shyness.

• Make everyday phone calls – if you want to order a takeaway, book an appointment or find out if your dry cleaning is ready, consider using the phone rather than going online. You may find it much more efficient and pleasant.

• Don’t overthink making a phone call. If you’re worried that you’re bothering someone by making a call, preface your conversation with a polite query “is this a good time to talk, or would you prefer me to call you back?”

• Don’t forget the pleasantries. Phone calls are undoubtedly a good way of cutting through obfuscation and misinformation, but they will always be more successful if you establish human contact first. This can be as simple as asking “how are you?” – it’s only polite.

• Smile. It helps if you smile in a friendly manner when you speak on the phone. You can’t be seen, but the tone of your voice changes when you smile, and the caller will “hear” the smile. Even if you are making a difficult phone call, perhaps about a complaint, remember that a smile will aways be disarming.

Making the most of Mother's Day

Our home-grown ‘Mother’s Day’ originated in the 17th century as a religious feast, called Mothering Sunday. It was a feast day held to celebrate the Virgin Mary and the idea was that people would return to their ‘mother church’, to make it a family celebration. It took place on the fourth Sunday of Lent and allowed for some easing of the Lenten fast – it was sometimes called ‘Simnel Sunday’ because it was traditional to bake simnel cake, a delicious concoction of dried fruits, spices and marzipan, which is also eaten at Easter. Inevitably, it became a family reunion, with mothers taking pride of place.

Like so many high days and holidays, Mother’s Day has become highly commercialised in recent years. Few of us can have failed to notice the banks of bouquets in supermarket entrances or the serried ranks of mass-produced cards. Like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, we are being sold a simple message about our obligations and encouraged to behave in socially homogenous way. But every mother is unique and there are myriad ways of celebrating this day that can be a more nuanced reflection of how you feel about this relationship.

Remember the main function of Mother’s Day is to acknowledge your mother’s role in your life and find a way of showing your appreciation. In these straitened times you do not need to squander large sums of money on expensive gifts – the emphasis should be on thought, planning, and taking trouble, rather than on extravagant ostentation.

Here are some suggestions:

• Most mothers will be delighted with a spring bouquet. Daffodils or narcissi are an inexpensive option – hand-wrap and tie them to make them look special. Lilies are a historical symbol of motherhood, or you can capitalise on the plenitude of beautiful tulips that are available at this time of year. Roses are a perennial favourite; opt for pink, yellow or white. Whatever your choice, buy flowers that are well-wrapped, preferably by a florist, and do not signal last-minute panic at the supermarket checkout or garage forecourt.

• If your mother loves to garden, why not buy her a special plant – a traditional English rose is always a good choice, and you might even be able to find one with a name that has some special meaning in your family lore.

• Create your own spring planter for your mother’s patio or window box. If you have children, they will enjoy helping. At this time of year inexpensive violas, hyacinths, primulas can be found in abundance, and once the display is past its best, they can all be planted out in the garden.

• For mothers who enjoy a drink, a bottle of champagne is always a good option. Alternatively, you could opt a special English sparkling wine.

• Give your mother an experience as a gift, and if possible, accompany her so it becomes a special excursion. The possibilities are legion: a wine-tasting and lunch in an English vineyard; an exclusive tour of a stately home or garden; a cooking class; an evening at the theatre or opera; a luxurious day at a hotel spa. Alternatively, you can suggest a simple outing that you know she will enjoy – a long country walk and pub lunch, a day at the seaside with fish and chips, a trip to an art gallery or exhibition.

• Take your mother out for a celebratory meal. You might want to eschew the crowded restaurants, with their ‘Special Menus’ on Mother’s Day – if you’re unlucky, it can feel too much like a celebration production line. But a date in the weeks ahead will be something she can look forward to.

• Encourage young children to contribute something special: they can hand-draw cards, create their own bouquets, or help to bake a cake. By giving them a role, you will be reinforcing the message that mothers play a fundamental role in family life, and showing your gratitude to them is of paramount importance.

• Make sure she enjoys a lazy indulgent day. Think about bringing her breakfast in bed or enlisting the help of the whole family to cook a delicious Sunday lunch (and wash up afterwards). Young children will enjoy helping.

While it is useful to have a ‘special day’ to remind you of everything you owe your mother, don’t make the mistake of guiltily piling on the treats, gifts and celebrations and then ignoring her for most of the year. Most mothers would be much more appreciative of regular contact and acknowledgment than an annual cornucopia.

If you are fortunate enough to have a close and bonded family, devoted children, a doting mother, then no doubt you will be looking forward to Mother’s Day and you are right to celebrate this good fortune. But spare a thought for the large numbers of people who dread the day and find it intensely depressing – they may be divorced, estranged or bereaved. Think about friends that are in this situation, take the trouble to ask them how they are going to spend the day, and enquire if you can help or participate in any way.

Think carefully before you post about your delightful Mother’s Day celebrations and try your best to avoid gloating and self-satisfaction. Remember, universal celebrations are delightful if you are happy and prospering, but they can also be painful and alienating reminders of everything you have lost.

Virtue... or vice?

The phrase 'virtue signalling' is ubiquitously deployed to describe people who express opinions (predominantly on social media) that demonstrate their moral rectitude and garner approval. Whether they are expressing compassion for disaster victims, denouncing a racist comment, or demonstrating their support for a good cause, they are clearly asserting their high moral standing. There is really nothing new about this phenomenon – unfortunately, there have always been people who promote their virtues rather than acting upon them – but social media provides a perfect platform for this kind of behaviour.

Virtue signalling is not just about individuals’ behaviour. This is clearly demonstrated in the world of corporate promotion, when large companies trumpet their compassionate employment policies, their ethical sourcing practices, or their prioritisation of environmental concerns (greenwashing) simply as a way of honing their image and making themselves more acceptable to a concerned public.

Virtue signalling is used as a term of disapproval because it is seen as a performative gesture, designed to make the perpetrator feel better about themselves while making minimal effort. Volunteering at a food bank or helping with your elderly neighbour’s weekly shop involves expending energy and demonstrating commitment in the real world. Supporting a political cause or movement on our online profile is the work of a moment. Without real-life engagement, it begins to look self-serving, a lazy short-cut to the moral high ground. An obvious motivation for virtue signalling is to seek an endorsement from our wider social circle for our demonstrable sense of responsibility and compassion. These self-centred agendas imply that perpetrators may not actually believe in what they are professing and are acting out of bad faith, opening them up to the charge of hypocrisy.

Doing the right thing when nobody is watching or applauding your actions, is a virtue, because you are acting for others’ benefit, not for your own gratification. The tendency to burnish your social reputation by broadcasting your moral attributes is a form of boastfulness, and not ‘practising what you preach’ makes it an empty gesture.

Is virtue signalling always bad? It could be argued that at least virtue signallers are highlighting causes and concerns and bringing them to wider attention. They are contributing to public discourse, reminding us of current issues and – even if their own motivation may be dubious – they may play their own part in bringing about positive change. They may, of course, feel genuinely passionate about the causes they espouse and accusations of hypocrisy are therefore ill-founded

While many of us may be outraged by other people’s tendency to jump on various bandwagons, then have the temerity to sanctimoniously lecture us about their moral superiority, we should be careful about over-using the term virtue signalling. It is all too often wielded as a lazy term of abuse by people who hold opposing political views, who are ever ready to condemn anyone who posits an argument that puts them in a good light, even if they are making that argument from a passionately held and committed viewpoint that has very little to do with advertising their moral credentials. Dismissing other people’s arguments as ‘virtue signalling’ or ‘self-serving’ is an excellent way of casting doubts and aspersions without troubling to engage with their point of view or properly rebut it.

The art of understatement

Hugh Grant’s low-key interview on the red carpet at this year’s Oscars ceremony once again highlights a quintessentially British characteristic, which stands out all the more when offset against the upbeat, enthusiastic and endlessly positive hype that surrounds the awards.

The British are increasingly exposed to other cultural influences, through all forms of media, and are gradually becoming more demonstrative and effusive. But only up to a point. Understatement is still a cultural norm in Britain and is seen as an attractive characteristic, synonymous with good manners. It has emerged from centuries of exacting training in drawing room etiquette. British gentlemen were encouraged to be modest about their achievements and were taught that boastfulness and arrogance were deeply unattractive traits. Instead, they were taught to deflect the conversation from themselves, and to show an unwavering interest in other people. Ladies were also taught that the most attractive characteristic they could possess was a becoming modesty – assertiveness, frivolity, loquaciousness were all deplored.

Understatement, which resolutely refuses to succumb to drama, excitement, or high emotion, goes hand in hand with another very British characteristic, the stiff upper lip, an imperturbable refusal to react histrionically to tragedy and disaster.

The most common manifestation of understatement is a determination to downplay achievements or feelings in a very self-deprecating way. This is often accompanied by a stubborn refusal to be swept along by hyperbole or overwrought emotions. Often this leads – as in the Oscar example – to a strange dance of misunderstanding. Faced with a resolutely deprecating master of understatement, a desperate interlocutor may respond with increasingly frantic assertions of approbation and affirmation. These in turn are met with yet more dogged downplaying. Onlookers may well conclude that the master of understatement is being rude, but this is not the case. The truth is that self-deprecation is a deeply ingrained part of his/her character which simply cannot be erased or concealed.

Sometimes British understatement is undeniably humorous: a famous example is the Monty Python sketch where the Grim Reaper turns up at a suburban dinner party and insists that all the guests accompany him. “Well”, one of the party guests remarks, “that’s cast rather a gloom over the evening hasn’t it?”

But understatement isn’t always deployed to raise a laugh; it permeates British speech. Conversation is littered with provisional qualifications, such as ‘quite’, ‘rather’, ‘a bit’, ‘I wonder’, ‘would you mind’, which are used all the time to downplay what are seen as over-dramatic or over-definitive statements. ‘Not bad’ is high praise, and ‘not bad at all’ is positively euphoric. You can be sure that if someone is ‘rather unpleasant’ they are verging on psychopathic. Commenting that someone is ‘quite talented’ is an acknowledgment of near genius. Extreme tentativeness characterizes direct requests: ‘I wonder, would you mind moving? I think that’s my seat’ means ‘Get out of my seat!’

Nowhere is this more apparent than in talk about the weather: ‘a bit nippy’ is considered an appropriate description of sub-zero temperatures, ‘rather damp’ describes a monsoonal downpour, ‘quite a stiff breeze’ denotes a gale-force wind.

Understatement inevitably leads to misunderstandings. Saying a piece of work is ‘not bad at all’, when you mean that it’s really very good, won’t always convey the requisite level of enthusiasm and affirmation. Similarly, telling a plumber that you’ve ‘got a bit of an issue with the pipes’ when you’re confronted with a rising flood and imminent ceiling collapse may not express sufficient urgency.

Above all, when you’re confronted by this British trait, don’t make the mistake of confusing understatement with under-reaction – remember to read between the lines and you’ll find the missing drama and emotion.

Three cheers for Cheltenham

The British love affair with horses and horse-racing is well-established. The stately progression through the winter jump racing season and the summer flat racing season marks out the sporting and social calendar for many devotees and – whatever the time of year or nature of the event – is an intriguing mixture of many recognisable British traits: an enthusiasm for sporting competition; a passion for all things equestrian; a delight in opportunities to dress up and cut a dash; a pleasure in socialising and conviviality.

The three jewels in the crown of the National Hunt (or jump racing) season – which runs from mid-October to the end of April – are the King George VI chase at Kempton Park (26 December). The Cheltenham Festival (14–17 March) and the Grand National (15 April).

Jump races can be broadly divided into steeplechases and hurdle races. In steeplechases, run over distances from 2-4½ miles, horses must jump fixed fences, which are at least 4½ft high. In hurdle races, run over distances from 2-3½ miles, horses jump smaller, less rigid obstacles, at least 3½ft high, which often collapse when hit by a jumping horse.

The Cheltenham Festival is a feast of horseracing in March, featuring fourteen grade one races over four days and bringing the best horses, trainers and jockeys in the business together. The excitement is palpable, and the huge crowds are abuzz with anticipation as the festival launches – don’t miss the loud cheers from the crowd, known as the Cheltenham Roar, which ring out before the starter raises the tape for the first race of the festival.

The festival starts with Champions Day, which features the most important hurdles race of the season while Festival Wednesday features the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase – an invigorating spectacle of a two-mile dash over Cheltenham’s famous fences. This is also Ladies’ Day, and there are awards for the Best Dressed Lady, Best Accessories and Best Hat.

On St Patrick’s Thursday Cheltenham takes on a distinctly Irish flavour, focusing on the Ryanair Steeple Chase. The day is a celebration of all things Irish and a chance for Cheltenham’s famous Irish contingent to celebrate. The Cheltenham Festival Prestbury Cup is the competition between the English and Irish to see who will have the most winners overall throughout the festival. It has seen a great rivalry between the home team of British-trained runners and those that have crossed the Irish Sea to compete.

Friday, Gold Cup Day, is the culmination of the festival, and the highlight of the jump racing season; the title is universally coveted by jockeys and trainers alike. It is open to horses aged five and over and is also the most valuable non-handicap chase in Britain, offering a total prize fund of £625,000 in 2023. It was first run in 1924, with a prize of £685 for the winner. Six other races, including two more Grade 1 events and three fiercely competitive handicaps, make this a truly exciting race day.

Punter Protocol

• Before the races visit the parade ring, you can see the and watch the jockeys, trainers and owners discussing tactics before the jockeys mount their horses and are led out onto the racecourse.

• Look out for a good muscle tone, shiny coat, bright eyes, a relaxed walk. Avoid horses who are agitated or sweating profusely.

• Once the horses have left the parade ring, you’ll have about five minutes to place your bets. Look at the bookies’ boards and find the best value bets. Winnings can be collected at any time after the race, there is no time limit.

• After the race visit the Winners Enclosure. The first four horses to finish will return there, with the winner arriving last and the atmosphere is highly charged with excitement and celebration. You’ll be able to watch the trophy presentation before the next race.

Dress Codes

There is no strict dress code at Cheltenham. The weather is always unpredictable – balmy spring days frequently alternate with driving rain or freezing cold March winds, so the main priority is to ensure you are warm, dry and comfortably shod. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly possible to prioritise comfort and still look smart or striking, so now is the time to forego your battered all-weather gear and opt for a more coordinated and elegant appearance.

Ladies: Choose a cosy tweed or woollen coat, with a hat and complementary accessories, such as a warm cashmere scarf or wrap and matching bag. Stylish fedoras, trilbies, berets or faux fur hats are all good choices, and some striking feathers in the headband will add a touch of interest and glamour. However, hats are not de rigueur.

You can team your coat with a tweed skirt and long boots, or even a smart pair of jeans. Merino or cashmere layers under your coat will ensure that you don’t get chilled to the bone. Remember that you run the risk of getting bogged down in waterlogged ground, so opt for low or chunky heels, or classic flats.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you will look more glamorous in scanty summery clothes – you will be freezing cold and shivering and goose bumps are never a good look. Save your summer dresses for the flat racing season and embrace winter chic.

Men: The key item is the coat – choose a well-tailored tweed coat or traditional covert coat, with a warm wool or cashmere scarf. Alternatively, you can opt for a tweed suit in rustic shades of brown, khaki or green, and layer up with a cosy fine knit or cashmere sweater. Choose smart boots or brogues and top off your outfit with a tweed flat cap or Baker Boy hat.

Etiquette for newlyweds

The wedding is over, the honeymoon a distant memory, and you’re ready to launch yourself into the world as a married couple. You will also need to make decisions about how you want to be addressed. Here are some simple recommendations to help you negotiate the post-marriage minefield:

Socialising as a Couple

• When introducing your partner to a group of friends (at a party for example), always indicate the marital relationship (“This is my wife Marian”, “This is my husband James”, or “This is my partner Eleanor”). This will avert any potential social embarrassment (unsolicited flirting, slighting remarks about the partner when they’ve left the social circle, and so on).

• Try to cut loose in social situation and don’t develop a clinging over-dependence on your spouse.

Traditionally, married couples were always seated apart at formal dinner parties, except for during their first year of marriage. This convention reflected the willingness of society to see married couples as two individuals, rather than a unit that is joined at the hip. These long-established formalities now no longer prevail, but you can still take the initiative and socialise freely,

• Keep your eyes open for people who are on their own, and make sure they don’t feel excluded by couples.

• Be careful that your body language isn’t sending the wrong message. Handholding, touching, or huddling together will broadcast that you’re an impregnable couple, with no interest in anyone else. Concentrate on looking outwards, not turning inwards.

• Don’t use pet names in public or litter your conversation with endearments. This kind of language is very exclusive; it is guaranteed to make the people around you feel like spare parts. While it is certainly important to ‘claim’ your marital relationship, this can be done very discreetly, with a passing reference to your ‘wife’, ‘husband’ or ‘partner’.

New Names

Both opposite and same-sex couples are now entitled to change their names on marriage. They can opt to retain their original surnames, or the couple can create their own double-barrelled surname by using both of their original surnames. Men have the same rights as women to take their partner’s surname.

The British marriage certificate states the surnames of the parties prior to their marriage and is the only supporting evidence required for either party, or both, to change their surname. The same applies to civil partnership certificates.

If the couple adopts a double-barrelled name that does not derive from their surnames, a change of name by deed poll is required.

Name changes are not an inevitable part of being married, and many couples will choose to retain their own surnames. Women may also decide that they do not want to be distinguished by a pronoun that denotes their married status and opt to use ‘Ms’ instead.

Joint Forms of Address

Traditionally, invitations to private functions were addressed solely to the wife. If an invitation was to a public function, it was conventionally addressed to the husband and sent to his official address. These old-fashioned customs reflect a long-vanished age, when wives were firmly in charge of the domestic sphere, and husbands went out into the professional world to work. Today, it is expected that social invitations will be sent to both the husband and wife for both private and public functions.

Conventionally, a husband and wife were addressed as Mr and Mrs John Debrett. However, many wives today find this form of address demeaning and do not like feeling subsumed into by the husband’s name, even if they have chosen to use it. They may, therefore, opt for the following forms, in descending order of formality:

Mr and Mrs Debrett

Mr John and Mrs Mary Debrett (conventionally the male partner appears first)

John and Mary Debrett (it is quite acceptable to reverse the order in which these forenames appear – Mary and John Debrett)

Same-sex couples can choose from the following forms:

Mr James and Mr Owen Sackville
Ms* Emma and Ms* Caroline Meadows

James and Owen Sackville

Emma and Caroline Meadows

*Women may choose to both use ‘Mrs’ to denote their married state

Couples with professional titles should use the following form:

The Reverend William and Mrs Sarah Parker

Mr William and The Reverend Sarah Parker

Dr Michael and Mrs Elizabeth Summers
Mr Michael and Dr Elizabeth Summers

If they are being invited to an event in an official capacity, then the invitee with the relevant professional status should be named first.

Who can be a prince or princess?

Image: Princess Elizabeth, as she was then, and Princess Margaret at a rehearsal for their father's coronation in 1937.

Since George V issued Letters Patent in December 1917, the rules, in the UK at least, as to who can be called Prince or Princess have been very clear. With an eye on an ever-expanding family and his German relatives, where the world and his wife were allowed the honour, King George decided instead to restrict the style and the use of HRH to immediate members of the Royal Family only.

The Letters Patent specifically states:

"…that the children of any Sovereign of the United Kingdom and the children of the sons of any such Sovereign and the eldest living son of the eldest son of The Prince of Wales shall have and at all times hold and enjoy the style, title or attribute of Royal Highness with their titular dignity of Prince or Princess prefixed to their respective Christian name…"

With this ruling his great-grandchildren, and the children of his daughter, would no longer be allowed to use HRH nor would they be styled Prince or Princess. This was the first time a Letters Patent actively restricted the usage of royal titles in the male line. George V did not, at this time, have grandchildren.

A few months before this ruling, on 17 July 1917, George V had also changed the name of the Royal Family from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, to the House of Windsor. During the First World War, many felt uncomfortable with the Royal Family’s connection to Germany. The King’s change of the Royal family name, the relinquishment of German titles and styles, and the restriction of who could and could not be HRH and Prince/Princess was one way of distancing the Family from the aggressor. In compensation, British peerages were awarded to various cousins who complied with this order, such as Louis of Battenburg, who became Louis Mountbatten, 1st Marquess of Milford Haven.

There are two ways one can become a Princess in the UK: by marriage or by birth. The only way to become a Prince in this country is to be born one. Archie, the only son of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, was not styled a Prince at birth, as he was then a great-grandson of the monarch. Since the late Queen’s death in September, however, and with his grandfather’s accession to the throne, he now falls under the 1917 ruling and can be styled Prince Archie of Sussex, if he so chooses.

When Catherine Middleton married Prince William in 2011, she did not become Princess Catherine – she became Princess William of Cambridge, or more commonly, the Duchess of Cambridge. The Queen awarding the dukedom to Prince William on the occasion of his marriage meant Catherine was not referred to as Princess William until her husband became The Prince of Wales.

Similarly, when Meghan Markle married Prince Harry in 2018, she did not take on the style of Princess Henry because of the Queen’s gift of the dukedom of Sussex to her grandson. And Sophie did not take the style of Princess Edward because of the Earldom of Wessex.

However, this does not apply to daughters born into the Royal Family. When Charlotte was born in 2015 she was automatically styled Princess Charlotte because the late Queen had already issued Letters Patent extending the scope of the 1917 ruling to all the Cambridge children:

"The Queen has been pleased by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm dated 31 December 2012 to declare that all the children of the eldest son of The Prince of Wales should have and enjoy the style, title and attribute of Royal Highness with the titular dignity of Prince or Princess prefixed to their Christian names or with such other titles of honour."

The Sussex children were not, while the late Queen was alive, entitled to use the style of Prince or Princess but once their grandfather became King, they as grandchildren of the monarch, were automatically afforded the style of HRH and Prince/Princess. They do not have to use these styles, and given that their parents no longer use HRH, it is likely that they will follow suit.

There are other examples of non-use of the style of Prince/Princess within the current Royal Family. The Wessex children, as children of the son of a monarch could have been style Prince James and Princess Louise. Instead, in consultation with the late Queen, their parents decided they should use the styles of children of a peer. In other words, James would use his father’s secondary title, Viscount Severn, and Louise, would be styled Lady Louise:

The Queen has also decided, with the agreement of The Prince Edward and Miss Rhys-Jones, that any children they might have should not be given the style His or Her Royal Highness, but would have courtesy titles as sons or daughters of an Earl.
Press Release - Saturday 19th June, 1999

Currently, in the UK, only 24 people would use the title Prince or Princess. It is an exclusive club, surely what George V wanted when he signed the Letters Patent back in 1917.

The Prince of Wales

The Princess of Wales (Princess William of Wales)

Prince George of Wales

Princess Charlotte of Wales

Prince Louis of Wales

The Duke of Sussex (Prince Henry of Sussex)

The Duchess of Sussex (Princess Henry of Sussex)

Prince Archie of Sussex

Princess Lilibet of Sussex

The Duke of York

Princess Beatrice of York

Princess Eugenie of York

The Princess Royal

The Earl of Wessex (Prince Edward of Wessex)

The Countess of Wessex (Princess Edward of Wessex)

Viscount Severn

Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor

Duke of Kent

Duchess of Kent

Prince Michael of Kent

Princess Michael of Kent

Princess Alexandra

Duke of Gloucester

Duchess of Gloucester

Note: When Sarah Ferguson married Prince Andrew in 1986, she became a princess by marriage. Since her divorce in 1996, however, she lost the right to use HRH and has been known as The Duchess of York and should not be referred to by any other style.

18th-century etiquette for women

As we celebrate International Women’s Day we have been leafing through an 18th-century guide to etiquette to gain some fresh insights into how the women who lived generations before us were expected to behave. The Lady’s Companion, an Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex, by ‘A Lady’, 1743, is typical of many of the etiquette books that catered for teenaged girls who were just about to be launched into society. It takes a high moral tone and is loaded with repressive admonitions. High standards of behaviour and compliance are demanded of young women, who above all are expected to be becomingly modest, meek and unassuming.

The anonymous writer of the Guide also seems to be alarmed by the ‘degenerate age’ in which she lives (a perennial concern) and is anxious above all to safeguard young women’s virtue, with dire warnings about the dangers of bold and flirtatious behaviour, vanity and – heaven forbid – drunkenness. She abhors any signs from women that they are behaving like men and insists that, above all, they should be obedient in all things to their parents and guardians.

The sheer volume and weight of the restrictive advice that is ladled out to young women must be shocking for their 21st-century descendants. It is a vivid reminder of how much society has changed and how deeply ingrained attitudes have been eradicated over the last two centuries allowing us to reassess and reinvent our notions of gender and all that it entails.

The Virtue of Modesty

Modesty [is] a Guider and Regulator of all decent and comely Carriage and Behaviour… and is the great Civilizer of Conversations… It appears in the Face in calm and meek Looks, where it so impresses itself, that it gives the greatest Lustre to a Feminine Beauty. Modesty… banishes all Indecency and Rudeness, all insolent Vauntings, and supercilious Disdains, and whatever else may render a Person troublesome, or ridiculous to Company… It restrains all excessive Talkativeness.”

Modesty is revered above all virtues because it is seen as a way of reining in any ‘dangerous’ impulses – self-assertiveness and talkativeness are seen as ‘troublesome’ and ‘ridiculous’ in a young woman. There is a general sense that any displays of strong character (firmly held opinions, confidently expressed) will be entirely injurious to the reputation, proving a fatal impediment to prospects of marriage, the ultimate goal.

The Degenerate Age

Such a degenerate Age do we live in, that every Thing seems inverted, even Sexes, whilst Men fall into the Effeminacy and Niceness of Women, and Women take up the Confidence, the Boldness of Men… Vices of Men are carefully copied by some Women, who think they have not made a sufficient Escape from their Sex, ‘till they can be as daringly wicked as the other… And when to this a Woman adds the Sin of Drunkenness, nothing that is human approaches so near a Beast. She who is first a Prostitute to Wine, will soon be to Lust also.”

It is scarcely surprising in these constricted circumstances that young women might aspire to the swagger and panache characteristic of young men, but the ‘Lady’ is thoroughly alarmed by the prospect of young women becoming more like men – boldness, spirit and self-assurance are repudiated, and there is an implication that taking on these characteristics will soon lead to ‘wickedness’ – succumbing to the temptations of alcohol and lust.

Unmannerly Freedom

The Female Sex ought to maintain a Behaviour toward Men, which may be secure to themselves without offending them. No ill-bred affected Shyness, nor a Roughness, unsuitable to their Sex, and unnecessary to their Virtue, but a Way of living that may prevent all Cause of Railleries or unmannerly Freedoms; Looks that forbid without Rudeness, and oblige without Invitation, or leaving room for the saucy Inferences Men’s Vanity suggests to them upon the least Encouragement.”

As if the above-mentioned remonstrances were not enough, young ladies are firmly instructed about their behaviour towards men and are told in no uncertain terms that the way in which they behave (boldness, flirtatiousness) may lead to ‘saucy inferences’ and ‘unmannerly freedoms’. In other words, men are, according to the ‘Lady’, vain enough to respond to the least encouragement, and are likely to misinterpret young ladies’ behaviour. This is dangerous territory, as it has the potential to lead to sexual scandal and a devastating loss of reputation. Yet young ladies are not seen as victims of predatory males; instead, they are told that it is their own demure behaviour that should control and repress lascivious intent.

Youthful Folly

Youth is apt to be foolish in its Designs, and heady in the Pursuit of them; and there can be nothing more deplorable than to have it left to itself.  Children are under the Guidance and Protections of their parents, ‘till, by the maturing of their Judgements, they are qualified to be their own Conductors.

It would be a rare young woman in the 18th century who asserted her own will over that of her parents. Etiquette guides such as The Lady’s Companion reflect societal norms in the ways in which they condescend to young people, dismissing them as foolish, impulsive and misguided. There is an assumption that in all things they must be guided, directed and, in effect, controlled by their parents and guardians.

Affability and Courtesy

Affability and Courtesy are, without doubt, amiable in all, but more especially in the Fair-Sex, and more necessary to them than to the other; for Men have often Charges and Employments which justify, nay, perhaps, require somewhat of Sternness and Austerity, but Women ordinarily have few or no Occasions of it.”

The “Lady” is under no illusions about the roles of the sexes in 18th-century society. She pragmatically points out that men go out into the world, take on great responsibilities and difficult challenges, and on these somewhat dubious grounds may be excused a certain “sternness”, but women do not have this excuse, living quietly as they do within the confines of the domestic sphere. They must therefore be ‘affable’ and courteous, countering any ‘austerity’ (bad temper) displayed by men.

Aging Gracefully

Women should let every seven Years make some Alteration in them towards the graver Side, and not be like the Girls of fifty, who resolve to be always young, whatever Time with his Iron Teeth determines to the contrary...the Liveliness of Youth in a riper Age, looks like a new Patch upon an old Gown.

Most of the ‘Lady’s’ advice is for younger women but she does not spare the older representatives of her sex, roundly condemning them for their determination to be “always young” and resist the “iron teeth” of time. Her contempt is reserved for older women’s behaviour rather than their appearance, and she clearly feels that their attempts to ape the “liveliness of youth” are unseemly and inappropriate. Apparently, the implacable grip of convention was not reserved solely for the young, but continued to be applied as women aged, ensuring that they complied with generally accepted social expectations.

How to be less awkward

While we all aspire to socialise with ease and panache, the reality is that most of us have experienced moments of crass social ineptitude, awkward pauses, jokes that fall flat or mis-timed interjections.

This can lead to feelings of social awkwardness – shyness and nerves, an inability to pick up on social cues, a tendency to overthink or regret things you have said, and a feeling that people don’t really enjoy talking to you and do their best to avoid you.

Most people experience moments of self-doubt about socialising, but if you feel self-consciousness is blighting your encounters and impeding your ability to function socially, try the following:

Practise your social skills on everyday encounters

Every day you will meet people who offer you a service (in shops, cafés, on public transport, delivering goods to your home etc). It is part of their job to be approachable and affable and they will therefore be receptive to your overtures and appreciative of your friendliness. Even if all you do is exchange a few pleasantries (observations about the weather – that great British standby – are an excellent default), you will gradually feel more at ease about chatting to strangers and less convinced that your attempts at small talk are going to end in disaster.

Show yourself to be an attentive listener

Concentrate on listening carefully when other people are talking. Focus on what they are saying and don’t spend all your time feeling distracted because you are trying to think of a witty or fascinating response.

Practise being an audible listener ­– that means making an occasional short and encouraging interjection like ‘really?’ or ‘how terrible!’ or ‘I can’t believe he said that!’, but don’t overdo it. If the person you are talking to seems to be running out of steam, re-start the conversation by asking a relevant and penetrating question.

All these techniques will ensure that people you converse with will feel truly heard and understood and will enjoy your engagement. All too often, people can leave a social encounter feeling that nobody has really attended to what they’ve been saying, so your obvious signs of interest will make you both memorable and appreciated.

Demonstrate that you’re empathetic

Everyone responds positively to empathy, which is the cornerstone of satisfying human relationships. One simple way of coming across as empathetic is to monitor and mirror other people’s emotions – it will make them feel both closely observed and understood, but it will also ensure that you won’t make elementary social blunders such as laughing at an inappropriate time, or interjecting lugubriously when someone is trying to be light and amusing. Taking your lead from other people will compensate for any deficiencies in your social antennae.

Reinforce feelings of empathy by seeking similarities and pointing them out (‘That’s just how I felt when gave my first presentation!’ or ‘I’m just like you, I can’t stand shellfish!’). This technique may seem crude and obvious, but everyone is seeking ways of bonding socially and will welcome helpful pointers.

Give compliments and receive them graciously

Everyone loves to be complimented and if you can manage to do so without sounding clunky or artificial it will certainly oil the wheels of social intercourse. Try and avoid bland generalities (“You look well!”) and concentrate on specifics (“I love the colour of your dress, it really suits you”). Try and be spontaneous and genuine when you offer compliments. Be careful about getting too personal when it comes to appearance and don’t stray into danger areas – “have you lost weight?” can be a counterproductive compliment as it tends to imply that the person needed to do so.

Compliments, while much appreciated, can sometimes lead to an awkward hiatus in the conversation, so it can be helpful if you move swiftly on, rather than waiting for the complimented person to react.

That said, if you receive a compliment, simply smile and say thank you. Don’t simper and don’t denigrate yourself. Never retaliate with a knee-jerk compliment back, which will sound false and self-serving.

Don’t be frightened of awkward silences

Firstly, remind yourself that there will always be natural lulls in conversation, so don’t go immediately into panic mode. Resist the temptation to fire off a barrage of random questions in a hysterical attempt to re-boot the exchange. A more congenial way of dealing with conversational hiatuses is to acknowledge that they have happened. If, for example, someone has told a funny anecdote and a lull occurs after the laughter has died down, it might be helpful to acknowledge it by saying “well, there’s not much anyone can say after that!”. If you feel a particular subject is exhausted, recognise it by saying “There’s really not much more we can say about that is there?” or “I’m sorry, I’ve clearly been rendered speechless!” Commenting on the lacunae in your own conversation can create feelings of affinity and connection.

Deploy your filter

Self-control and thinking carefully before you speak will prevent you blurting out something inappropriate or out of context (eg mentioning a stomach upset in polite society, referring to a salacious bit of scandal in front of a person who is related to the perpetrator, or airing robust political views when you are with people who emphatically do not share them). You might be someone who has no boundaries and has a tendency to talk openly and revealingly to new acquaintances, who are disconcerted by your revelations.

Remember past gaffes and indiscretions, take a deep breath and wait a couple of seconds before you speak – that should give you enough time to filter out inappropriate remarks.

While conflict, provocation and indiscretion can all contribute to memorable conversations, as a rule it is best to play safe when you first meet people and test out their tolerances and sensitivities by avoiding these topics:

• Private matters like relationships, personal finance, mental health, or family issues

• Taboo and controversial issues like religion, politics, gossip, body parts, or sex

• Strong or overbearing opinions

• Negative comments about other people

• Excessively deep emotional sharing (especially in the early stages of a friendship or relationship)

If your filter isn’t functioning properly and you get into deep water, pull yourself up short and laugh at yourself (“sorry, I don’t know where I was going with that!”, “oh dear, please ignore me, I’m rambling!”).

Socialising is a delicate dance: when you first meet people you may find the conversation tends towards the bland and innocuous, but this is a safe and gentle way of establishing contact and getting to know them. If you make a connection, you can take it further and push the boundaries. If you don’t connect, you can simply move on.

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