How to Homeshare on Holiday

It’s summertime and our summer holidays are just around the corner. For many of us, the fantasy of enjoying a week or two in a holiday cottage or villa with a few close friends is extremely seductive. But remember, the undoubted benefits of sharing your holiday space with a convivial crowd of people can all too often be offset by petty disputes and ill-feeling.

You should be able to head off any potential difficulties by following our simple advice – it’s just a matter of being observant and aware of everything that is going on and ensuring that chores are equally divided between all the guests:

Division of Labour

If you are the prime mover, you will have probably found the property, rounded up the guests and taken charge of all the administration associated with the rental. This clearly represents a lot of work, and you should be rewarded for your diligence. You are entitled to choose your own bedroom, and other guests should recognise this and give you priority.

If the rental is a cooperative venture, you might find that you’re racing your fellow guests, trying to get to the property first and secure the best accommodation. This undignified land-grab can ruffle feathers at the outset and cause a poisonous atmosphere. It is better if you sit down your fellow guests beforehand, look at the property brochure or website, and try to allocate rooms on the basis of need. For example, a couple with a baby might need a larger bedroom; an elderly relative might prefer a room on the ground floor and so on. If there are no obvious priorities, why not have a lottery for rooms?

Cooperative Living

Discuss catering arrangements at the outset, preferably while you’re still planning the holiday. It’s pointless to impose a one-size-fits-all regime on a random collection of people with different tastes and proclivities. Presumably you will know your planned household very well, and will be able to adapt to their individual foibles.

It’s unnecessary to set up a rigid cooking rota if one of your guests is a passionate cook, who loves nothing better than visiting markets, sourcing and preparing local produce, and resents every minute he or she is shut out of the kitchen. In this situation, it would obviously be wise to make way for the enthusiastic cook – other guests could compensate by acting as sous-chefs when needed, and taking on full responsibility for washing up and clearing the kitchen.

If, on the other hand, nobody is stridently demanding kitchen privileges, then it is sensible to take it in turns to prepare the main meal, and it is obviously easiest if the person who is cooking is also responsible for shopping. If you’re adamantly anti-cooking, or resent being expected to prepare meals on your holidays, then you should treat your fellow guests to a meal out.

It might be that, as a group, you decide to eschew the whole home-cooking routine, and you plan to enjoy the food in the local pub, trattoria or taverna every night. If that is the case, you could all contribute to an eating out kitty at the outset; alternatively you could each take it in turns to pay for an evening meal. Whatever method you choose, you will need to be relaxed and laid back about ordering meals and paying for them – quibbling about who had what will definitely erode the holiday spirit.

Shared Responsibilities

You can be sure that nobody will want to take total responsibility for washing up, tidying and cleaning, so this is an area where it is essential that everybody shares the chores, and this should be made clear at the very beginning. We’re all grown-ups and are unlikely to appreciate a washing-up rota, so you will need to be observant and pro-active. If one person is washing up day after day, while fellow guests blithely loll on their loungers, then resentment is inevitable, and holiday good spirits will evaporate. Watch out for guests who are turning into drudges and stop the rot.

Remember it’s not just about preparing dinner. Throughout the day, drinks will need to be made and offered, and perhaps a light picnic lunch will need to be assembled. These countless small tasks can add up, so it is important that you’re alert and ready to jump up and offer to help.

Don’t look at a shared holiday rental as a chance to palm your children off on your unsuspecting friends. Your children remain your responsibility and, if you need help with them, this has to be negotiated on an ad hoc basis.

Respect the Rental

Leave everything as you’ve found it, dispose of your rubbish and maintain basic cleaning standards while you’re in residence. Report any spillages or breakages to the landlord before you leave.

Think about your neighbours: while you may only be in residence for a week or two, your landlord may have to mollify them and pick up the pieces if you’ve annoyed them during your stay.

Be aware of noise nuisance. Treat the place with respect and don’t pollute a quiet county neighbourhood with loud music, screaming kids and roaring engines. If you’ve brought your dogs, control loud barking and make sure they don’t stray into private property.

Drive carefully; you may be tucked away down a narrow country lane, so don’t enrage the locals with crazy driving antics. If parking spaces are not provided, be very considerate about blocking drives or obstructing passing places.

The Etiquette of School Sports Day

It’s school sports day season and the knives are out. All over the country, mild-mannered, supportive parents are being transformed into hysterical monsters, screaming encouragement and abuse from the side lines, suffused with a spirit of ultra-competitiveness and cutthroat rivalry.

As often as not, the targets of this naked lust for sporting glory are easily distracted and troublingly unfocused, determined to have a good time, even if it means coming an inglorious last in the sack race. Their main, and laudable, priority is to have fun, outside on a summer’s day, with their friends.

Why then, do parents unleash their inner demons on this most innocent of occasions? A possible explanation is that the sports day provides a legitimate excuse for a release of feelings that are pent-up and suppressed for the rest of the year. Parents want the best for their children; they want them to excel and their ambitions are boundless. Most of the time, they recognise that revealing their inner drive is counter-productive, liable to distress their children, giving them a bad case of performance anxiety.

Inevitably, parents are also hyper-aware of where their children stand in relation to their contemporaries. On play dates and at children’s parties, they cannot resist eying up the ‘competition’, comparing abilities, accomplishments, coordination and verbal skills. Much of this behaviour is to do with seeking reassurance; ascertaining their child’s abilities against a ‘control group’ of contemporaries.

All these tendencies are repressed most of the time. Parents encourage their children’s friends, are supportive of their parents, congratulate them on their children’s attainments, and try to radiate a general air of positivity and encouragement. One-upmanship and boasting about their own children’s achievements is definitely frowned upon, and may well lead to school gate ostracism.

Except on sports days (and match days)… These are the occasions when parents can toss aside their inhibitions and reveal themselves as ferocious partisans. This is acceptable up to a point, but once the social barriers are down it can easily get out of hand – some schools have even banned parents from attending sports day because staff and children feel intimidated by their threatening behaviour.

Ultimately, none of this is particularly helpful to our children. We strive hard to teach them about winning and losing and sportsmanship. We solemnly indoctrinate them with platitudes about being a good sport – it’s not all about winning the game or the race, it’s about playing or competing well. This means being magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. Of course, they must foster a highly developed sense of competition, but they must never let the urge to win debase their own conduct. Most importantly of all, they must accept defeat or victory with equanimity – no bragging, triumphalism, whining, arguing, or whingeing.

These are difficult lessons for any child to learn – their natural instincts urge them to go hell for leather, to rage or gloat with uninhibited glee. They have to learn to control these powerful impulses, and behave in a way that is highly contrived.

So it’s very counter-productive if they see their own hypocritical parents indulging in a storm of emotion in the spectator stands. Wouldn’t it be better if  – as the proud parent of a small child – you led by example? Try and contain your more extreme emotions; support your child by all means, commiserate if they fail, congratulate them if they win, and extend the same courtesies to other children and their parents. That way, school sports day will be, as was always intended, the first step on the long journey towards civilised behaviour, rather than a shocking demonstration that (parental) nature is “red in tooth and claw”.

18th-Century Manners for Men

We have been consulting an excellent guide to good manners, Principles of Politeness and of Knowing the World, compiled from the letters of Lord Chesterfield, with comments by the Rev Dr John Trusler in 1775. John Trusler (1735–1820) was an eccentric English divine and literary man, who published copious works on a range of subjects, from history, travel and the English language to etiquette manuals, self-help guides and medical advice on longevity.

This entertaining volume is full of imprecations and recommendations to young men who are entering society. While some of the reverend gentleman’s musings are pompous and old-fashioned, much that he recommends is perfectly sensible advice for both men and women and, surprisingly, is still applicable to modern society and contemporary behaviour.

Here is a sample of what he calls the “sundry little accomplishments” that are the prerequisites of “good breeding”:

• “Pay some attention to your behaviour at the table, where it is exceedingly rude to scratch any part of your body, to spit, or blow your nose, if you can possibly avoid it, to eat greedily, to lean your elbows on the table, to pick your teeth before the dishes are removed, or to leave the table before Grace is said.”

Most of this list of admonishments still holds true today, though it is to be hoped that nobody would think it acceptable to spit at the table. Grace is rarely said these days, but of course – on the occasions when it features – you must bow your head and sit quietly until it is finished.

• “Eating quick, or very slow at meals, is characteristic of the vulgar; the first infers poverty, that you have not had a good meal for some time; the last, if abroad, that you dislike your entertainment.”

While we all have our own natural eating pace, it is certainly polite to try and conform to the general pace of the people around you. Bolting your food will mean you are left idle at the end of the meal with a reproachfully empty plate; eating agonisingly slowly will mean that everyone at the dinner table is waiting for you to finish and you may find yourself the object of unwanted attention.

 • “Humming a tune to ourselves, drumming with our fingers on the table, making a noise with our feet, and such like are all breaches of good manners, and indications of our contempt for the persons present; therefore they should not be indulged.”

We might argue that a tendency to jiggle our feet or fidget does not necessarily express contempt for the company we keep, but we would certainly agree that all tics and distractions are extremely irritating, and in many cases will be seen as a troubling sign of nervousness.

• “Pulling out your watch in company unasked, either at home or abroad, is a mark of ill breeding… If at home, it appears as if you were tired of your company, and wish them to be gone; if abroad, as if the hours dragged heavily, and you wished to be gone yourself. If you want to know the time, withdraw.”

While scrutinising a pocket-watch was a very hard gesture to conceal, this advice still holds true today. Whether you are glancing at a wristwatch or quickly consulting your phone, it will still be obvious you are looking at the time, and the people you are with may feel affronted. It’s far better to wait until you can make an excuse – a visit to the bathroom, or taking a few minutes outside for a breath of air.

• “A polite manner of refusing to comply with the solicitations of the company is also very necessary to be learned; for a young man, who seems to have no will of his own, but does everything that is asked of him, may be a very good natured fellow, but he is a very silly one. If you are invited to drink at any man’s house, more than you think it’s wholesome, you may say ‘you wish you could, but that so little makes you both drunk and sick, that you should be only be bad company by doing it’.”

This sensible advice concerns the way in which we can all be led astray, especially when we are prone to accede to all sorts of ill-advised suggestions because we do not want to appear to be uptight or a ‘party-poopers’. Tusler’s recommendation is that, by pleading our own risk or susceptibility, we will not cause offence to other people.

• “It were better not to know a diamond from the club, than to become a gambler; but as custom has introduced innocent cardplaying at most friendly meetings it marks the gentleman to handle them genteely, and play them well, I hope you will play only for small sums; should you lose your money, pray lose it with temper; or win, receive your winnings without either elation or greediness.”

While card-playing is no longer a customary practice at most social gatherings, the advice about gambling in still relevant, and may well be applicable if you join a group at a horse-racing event, for example, where it is common practice to have a flutter. It is still vitally important that you conceal your despair or joy (this may be painful for people who are nursing the pain of a loss) and don’t inflict your emotional highs and lows on your friends.

“To write well and correct, and in a pleasing style, is another part of polite education… Epistolary correspondence should not be carried on in a studied or affected style, but the language should flow from the pen, as naturally and as easily as it would from the mouth. In short, a letter should be penned in the same style as you would talk to your friend if he was present.”

The admonition to write in a clear, conversational style – free from pretentious prose and pompous posturing, was clearly important in an age when the primary means of communicating with friends and family was by letter. In essence, it is still relevant today; it behoves us all to communicate as clearly as possible, whether we are using emails, texting or posting.

• “Be careful never to tell in one company what you see or hear in another; much less to divert the present company at the expense of the last. Things apparently indifferent may, when often repeated and told abroad, have much more serious consequences than imagined. In conversation, there is generally a tacit reliance that what is said will not be repeated; and a man, though not enjoined to secrecy, will be excluded the company, if found to be a tattler.

This is timeless advice against gossiping. It is pointed out that seemingly trivial tittle-tattle may become much more ominous once it has been churned through the rumour-mill. We are also reminded that people who gossip, no matter how fascinating their friends might find it, are ultimately seen as unreliable scandalmongers, who cannot be trusted with a secret.

• “Some men are vain enough to think they are quite a consequence by alliance, or by an acquaintance with persons of distinguished character or abilities; hence they are eternally talking of their grandfather, Lord such a one; their kinsman, Sir William such a one; or their intimate friend, Doctor such a one, with whom, perhaps, they are scarce acquainted. If they are ever found out, (and that they are sure to be, one time or other) they become ridiculous and contemptible.… A man’s intrinsic merit does not rise from an ennobled alliance, or a reputable acquaintance.

Name-dropping is just as problematic today as it was in Trusler’s time. It is a crude attempt to gain kudos from someone else’s reputation – as he points out, it is more likely to reveal feelings of social insecurity or to make you look like a sad celebrity-stalker.

• “Never be witty, at the expense of anyone present… you may possibly thus gain the laugh on your side for the present, but it will make the person, perhaps, at whose expense you are merry, your enemy for ever after; and even those who laugh with you, will, on a little reflection, fear you, and probably despise you.

It is still the case that making fun of people is an easy way to get a laugh from the assembled company, but you can easily stray into dangerous territory, where your target may feel victimised or insulted (of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and some friends actively enjoy teasing each other). Be very careful about humour, as it can be easily misinterpreted – what you think of as light-hearted joshing may come across to other people as inappropriate and over-critical.

• “True politeness consists in making every body happy about you; and as to mortify is to render unhappy it can be nothing but the worst of breeding. Make it a rule, rather to flatter a person’s vanity than otherwise make him, if possible, more in love with himself, and you will be certain to gain his esteem; never tell him any thing he may not like to hear, nor say things that will put him our countenance, but let it be your study on all occasions to please; this will be making friends instead of enemies, and be a means of serving yourself in the end.”

We couldn’t agree more – it is always sensible to err on the side of amiability and kindness, thus ensuring that people enjoy your company and are well-disposed towards you.

The Summer Exhibition 2022

A long-standing favourite of the London art year, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is the world’s largest open-submission contemporary art exhibition. Members of the fêted Royal Academy compete against unknown artists to have their work displayed.

Founded in 1768 as a rival to the Society of Artists, the Royal Academy has hosted its annual summer exhibition – the world’s biggest open contemporary art exhibition – since its inception at a number of venues: Pall Mall, Somerset House, Trafalgar Square, and finally Burlington House on Piccadilly.

The process by which the paintings where chosen and hung, the Varnishing Days, private views and banquets have all changed little since the 19th century, when the exhibition ran for a month longer, from the first Monday in May to the first Monday in August.

Any artist was allowed to submit up to eight paintings to the Selection Committee, who were (and still are) famous for their fast-moving and relentless decision-making, as thousands of artworks were paraded in front of the Committee by a human chain of art-handlers, known as ‘carpenters’. Paintings were marked with an ‘A’ (accepted), ‘D’ (doubtful) or a cross (rejected). Many ‘doubtful’ paintings actually made it to the hanging stage.

Now it was the turn of the Hanging Committee, who selected the most outstanding works, which were hung ‘on the line’, at eye level, the most prestigious position. The walls were then crammed with the remaining paintings, which were positioned from floor to ceiling, with some condemned to inaccessible heights and shadowy corners. The final choices about paintings to include were made by the Hanging Committee as they worked to include as many submissions as possible.

Before the Exhibition opened to the general public, a number of social events took place, which were very much an integral part of the London Season. Varnishing Days were set aside for the exhibitors, who were allowed to put the finishing touches to their paintings. These days were a convivial chance for artists to meet, eye up each other’s work and swap notes.

From 1871 a Press Day was set aside for newspapers and periodicals, and a Royal Private View Day allowed the royal family exclusive access to the exhibition. But the real height of the Social Season was the Private View. Admission was by ticket only and attendance by the fashionable elite was de rigueur. The final event, held on the Saturday before the Exhibition opened to the public, was the Royal Academy Banquet, a men-only affair that was attended by members of the Academy, and the highest-ranking representatives of the Government, Church, universities and armed forces, as well as the worlds of art, drama, music and literature.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was extraordinarily popular amongst the general public in the 19th century – its peak year was 1879, when over 390,000 visitors paid a shilling to gain entrance to Burlington House. Reviews of all the major works featured in the newspapers, which also reported the speeches from the Royal Academy Banquet. Some of the paintings sold for astronomical sums.

Today the Summer Exhibition continues to attract large crowds, with over 200,000 visitors expected in 2022. Many of the historic traditions persist. A rotating committee made up of practising artists choose over 5,000 works from more than 11,000 entries. Each year an artist co-ordinator is chosen to direct the show.  The final choices are made in the gallery on ‘Sanctioning Day’, when after the eight-day hanging period, the committee meets for the last time and finalises the selection. Today, exhibitions include photographic and moving images, and examples of installation and performance art.

The Varnishing Day tradition persists, but it has now become a celebration of the artists in the show, who gather in the courtyard of Burlington House and form a procession down Piccadilly, led by a steel band, before attending an artists’ blessing at St James’s Church.

Etiquette for Exhibitions

If you are visiting the Summer Show or any other exhibition or gallery, observe the following rules:

•           Never touch the art. Don’t even get too close to the art – you may find staff admonishing you and asking you to step back.

•           Switch off your mobile and talk quietly – art galleries are not places for loud conversations.

•           Be very aware of the people around you, and if you are planted firmly in front of a painting remember that other visitors will have to wait before you move on. You may want more time to look at individual artworks, but it is probably better to observe the ebb and flow of visitors and return to a painting when there is more space available.

•           Do not use flash photography – it can damage artwork and is distracting for other visitors. If other visitors are taking photographs, give them plenty of space.

•           If you are encumbered with coats or jackets, and especially backpacks, check them into the cloakroom. In a crowded exhibition, backpacks can be a real hazard as you’re liable to jostle other people.

The well-brought-up child

The well-brought-up child is the holy grail of every parent. The very phrase conjures up images of Victorian rectitude, a captivating mixture of demure deference and quirky charm, all wrapped in a cloak of impeccably good manners.

Alas, the reality can seem very different. Boisterous, excited, brimful of anarchic energy, our own kids tear through our lives in a barely containable blur. All too often children can seem to be little more than monstrous egos – desperate for attention, greedy for treats and attention, impatient of any attempts to contain them. They are truly a wonder of nature – but can they actually be housetrained?

Do not despair. Put the holy grail behind you and settle for a pragmatic second-best. At the very least you should be able to train your child to say please and thank you, to (more or less) do what they’re told, to close their mouths when they’re eating and use a knife and fork, to be reasonably considerate towards other children. This is the bare minimum.

Inevitably, they’ll let you down. They’ll be reduced to mumbling Neanderthals when their grandparents ask them about school… Or they’ll boast shamelessly in front of your friends… Or they’ll succumb to an additive-fuelled frenzy at the end of the children’s party and won’t put their coats on… Or they’ll arrive at your friend’s house and immediately, and repeatedly, ask “When can we go home? I’m bored.” These are the crosses that every parent has to bear, and the least you can expect is that other parents are sympathetic and supportive when your child goes rogue.

But try and retain a sense of proportion. At least they’re not psychotic bullies and delinquents. At least they have an idea of what’s expected of them. At least, some day, they’ll grow up into reasonable human beings… 

Children’s Manners Top Tips

• Teach them to mind their ps and qs. Yes, it’s very boring to have to reiterate it, but repetition really works, and for the first few years, the phrases “Say please”, “Say thank you”, “Say thank you for having me”, “What do you say to Toby’s mum?” will be constantly on your lips.

• Teach your child empathy from an early age. Keep reiterating remarks like “how would you feel if someone said that to you?”, and you’ll get your child into the habit of thinking about the impact their behaviour has on others.

• Emphasise the importance of sharing. This doesn’t come naturally, so you have to actually tell children to offer sweets around, give other kids a go on the swing etc. Again, repetition is valuable.

• Table manners are by no means natural (as will become obvious when you witness, horror-struck, the graphic scenes that accompany very young children’s mealtimes). Eventually you will introduce them to the arcane mysteries of correct cutlery usage, but for the time being concentrate on the following:

  1. Wait until everyone has started before you do; if you are specifically invited to start immediately, it is acceptable to do so.
  2. Always eat with your mouth closed.
  3. Always use cutlery (fingers are for bread, fruit and barbecues)
  4. Never reach across the table and help yourself to food; always ask for food to be passed to you (a please won’t go amiss).
  5. Eat as much as you can, then put your knife and fork together on the plate to indicate you have finished.
  6. Ask permission to leave the table, or wait until there is a general move to do so.

• Get your child into the habit of asking before they help themselves to food, snacks or drinks or switch on the television. If they follow these rules in your own house, the chances are that they will adhere to them when visiting friends’ houses – other parents may find proprietorial rummaging in the fridge or channel-hopping rude and intrusive.

• Teach your child from an early age that it’s rude to interrupt. Be aware, however, that it’s your job to strike a delicate balance between ignoring your child when they’re being pointlessly hectoring, and listening to your child when they’ve really got something important to say.

• Lead by example. No child will magically acquire good manners if they’re not seeing them displayed in their own home. So remember to phrase requests to your child politely (keep barked commands to the minimum), and, wherever possible, explain the logical rationale behind decisions – arbitrary commands from above will understandably infuriate your child.

How to celebrate Father's Day

Father’s Day, which was first celebrated in Washington state, USA, in June 1910, is an American import, which reached the UK in the early years of the 20th century. It became enduringly popular after World War II when it was promoted as a day to remember men who were away from home on the field of battle.

Like Mother’s Day, the primary emphasis of Father’s Day is on the benefits of families spending time together, enjoying a special treat, and celebrating all-important family ties. In some families, fathers will enjoy gifts such as books, alcohol and gourmet treats.

Taking place near midsummer, the main emphasis is on being out and about as a family and indulging fathers, either with well-chosen outings or their favourite food and drink. Here are a few suggestions:

Enjoy a Cricket Match with your Father

The slow unfolding of a world class test match, with its well-informed commentators, enthusiastic spectators, historical precedents, arcane statistics and anxious weather-watching is a quintessentially British pastime. Cricket has come to define the essence of good sportsmanship. When Lord Harris wrote his book, A Few Short Runs, in 1921, he discussed the phrase “That is not cricket”, which has come to define “something as not being fair, not honourable, not noble. What a tribute for a game to have won, but what a responsibility for those who play and manage it!”

From the perfect sight of a cricket match played on a village green in late afternoon sunlight to the grandeur and excitement of an England test match at Lords, cricket offers so much to the spectator. This is going to be a busy summer for the English team, who are hosting test series against New Zealand and South Africa, as well as T20 (one-day) series against India and South Africa. If you can’t make it to one of the national matches, remember there is a plethora of county cricket on offer, with 19 county cricket clubs to choose from.

Take Your Father to to a Country House Opera

The summertime world of country house operas is a wonderful treat for music-lovers, and if your father falls into that category he will appreciate your thoughtfulness. It will certainly feel like a special occasion and many patrons will enjoy dressing up.

Performances take place outside, often with spectacular architectural backdrops, in some of England’s most beautiful private gardens. You arrive early, generally around 5pm for pre-opera drinks. Long intervals of around 100 minutes are a chance to enjoy supper in the summer twilight; you can choose to book a restaurant on-site, or you can bring your own stylish picnic – pack fold-up chairs and table, glasses and cutlery and a cool box to ensure that chilled white wine is readily available. Classic English summer treats such as asparagus, smoked salmon and strawberries can be delicately nibbled with minimal mess.

A Practical Guide to Table Manners

The cause of much social anxiety, table manners are all too often associated with an arcane list of duties and proscriptions. Many anxious diners have been brought to the verge of nervous collapse
when faced with a daunting array of cutlery and tableware, a host of waiting staff, and a bewildering selection of glasses.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, console yourself with the fact that only a deeply sadistic host would actually take pleasure from your embarrassment, and remind yourself that an over-punctilious insistence on the niceties of table performance is probably a sign of entrenched snobbery or social discomfort.

That is not to say, however, that table manners do not matter. There are certain basic codes of conduct that matter very much indeed. At the bare minimum, you should eat with your mouth closed, never talk with your mouth full, help other diners to food before serving yourself, ask for food to be passed across to you (rather than reaching across the table), and sit up squarely to the table, with your elbows tucked in. If you adhere to these simple rules, your manners will never cause revulsion or distaste, and – better still – you will not bring attention to yourself.

If you are in a formal situation, and you feel more is being asked of you, observe your fellow diners closely and copy what they do. Work the cutlery from the outside in, and bear in mind that the bigger, rounder wine glasses are for red, and the taller, thinner ones are for white. Put your napkin on your lap, don’t tuck it in your shirt.

Avoid using your fingers – though it’s fine to pick up asparagus (without a sauce) and the only way to peel off the leaves of a globe artichoke. Fingers can also be used for fruit, such as grapes and oranges. Pips and stones should be discreetly spat into a cupped left hand and deposited on the site of the plate. That’s really good enough.

If your concentration lapses, and you find yourself eating the meat with a fish knife and fork, drinking mineral water from the wine glass, slurping water from the finger bowl, just carry on. With any luck no one will notice, and if they do, your fellow diners may actually admire your insouciance.

Mistakes of this sort are only serious if you let your embarrassment get the better of you… On the other hand, eating with your mouth open and grabbing food from under other people’s noses is genuinely offensive.

Table Manners Top Tips

The pros and cons of WFH

The pandemic lockdowns are in the past but the impact they had on our working practices is still reverberating, and we are continuing to make adjustments to our working life.

At the height of the Covid crisis, working from home was seen as the universal panacea – a safe way of ensuring that we were productive but not at risk from office-borne infections. For many of us, working from home was a revelation; it was a liberating chance to restructure our working lives around our family commitments and many people found the self-containment of the home office surprisingly conducive to concentration.

Not everybody reacted positively to this move into the domestic sphere. Some people felt lost, disorientated and distracted. They missed the everyday pleasantries of office life and longed to return to the workplace.

Not surprisingly, there are pros and cons to both:

Pros of Working From Home

• You are able to work flexibly and, if your employer agrees, you can structure your working day around your family or other commitments­ ­– for example, working early in the morning or in the evening.

• Providing you have a dedicated workplace at home, where you can shut yourself off from the household, you will be free from outside distractions and should be able to work more productively.

• In many offices a great deal of time is wasted by employees getting together for unnecessary and protracted meetings, which can easily wander away from the subject in hand to gossip or unrelated issues. If you are restricted to Zoom meetings, they tend to be shorter and more focussed.

• You will not be spending hours every week to travelling to and from work, and you therefore will not have to fund your – increasingly expensive – commute. Even if you do have to attend the occasional meeting you will be able to organise it in off-peak hours and will not be penalised with higher peak hours fares.

Cons of Working From Home

• Your house is full of distractions. You may become diverted by domestic chores, the garden, or the fridge – if you feel like procrastinating or are gearing yourself up to make a difficult call, it is all too easy to wander into the kitchen for a quick snack or cup or coffee.

• You are unobserved by colleagues. If you are prone to spending hours messaging your friends or online shopping, you may find this habit gets out of hand in the privacy of your home office.

• Your absence from the office may mean that you miss out on opportunities or information that you will only pick up accidentally when you are there in person. You may also find that out of sight is out of mind; if you are not physically present, your managers may overlook you or turn to in-house employees.

• You will be missing out on routine chats over the coffee machine or the water cooler. These day-to-day pleasantries are not only a pleasant distraction, they are a simple and effective way of bonding with your colleagues and feeling part of a team.

The Goldilocks Principle

For some employers, the deserted office is an affront. They feel that oversight of their employees is impaired and that efficiency is suffering.  They also feel that the lack of in-person meetings is leading to communication breakdowns and damaging teamwork and collaborative work.  Some are beginning to insist on a full return to the office.

Other employers have radically restructured their operations post-pandemic. They have accepted the working from home model and have been able to reduce overheads by moving to much smaller offices.

Bearing all the pros and cons in mind, many people are now opting for a third way – hybrid working. They will go into the office one or two days a week, which gives them a chance to re-bond with their colleagues and have in-person meetings. They will spend the rest of the week working from home. For many people this is the perfect compromise, providing sufficient social contact and stimulation, but ensuring that they also have the flexibility and independence of working from home.

How to say no

British people have always felt that an outright negative is rather bald and impolite. There is a tendency, therefore, to bedeck a negative with evasions and circumlocutions. If, for example, you ask someone “do you like the meal?”, you can be sure that a reply along the lines of “it’s certainly very interesting” is a resounding negative.

If you ask someone if they want to do something/go somewhere and they reply, irritatingly, with “we’ll see”, this probably means that they want to do nothing of the sort.

This tendency to obfuscate the negative often comes with the best of (polite) intentions – a desire to please everybody, to accentuate the positive, to oil the wheels of social intercourse and ensure that interactions are seamless and agreeable. However, being perennially incapable of saying “no” can also lead to confusion and frustration. If someone hedges around their response to a social invitation with prevarications and uncertainty it is very hard to establish whether they are actually going to attend. It would be much better for anyone initiating or hosting an event to know where he or she stands, with no ambiguity.

Try and perfect the art of refusing politely and unambiguously. If you can’t make it to an event, just say (or text or write) something along the lines of: “Thank you so much for inviting me to xxxxx. I’m so sorry, but I won’t be able to come – I do hope you all have a great time.” If you recoil at the starkness of this statement, you can always add an excuse or a reason (overwork, other commitments, holiday, family obligations etc). The main point is that everyone knows where they stand. If it’s possible, you can always suggest an alternative, which will end the transaction on a positive note.

If you are asked to a social event or date in person, you may find your natural British tendency is to default to the “we’ll see” formula. This is maddeningly vague. Instead, try and school yourself in the art of the straightforward negative, British-style. This is always prefaced with an apology: ‘I’m afraid”, “I’m sorry but”, “Unfortunately”, along the lines of “I’m afraid I can’t come to dinner on Tuesday.” If you are not a person who customarily refuses, then your negative will be satisfyingly decisive.

However harsh you may find these simple negatives, remind yourself that you will be heading off a lot of trouble down the line. Simply saying no is obviously preferable to accepting everything and then cancelling 99 per cent of your commitments. Your inability to say no may well be a symptom of FOMO, and the firm belief that a serial refusenik will fall off most people’s social radar. But you are much more likely to be decisively dropped if you repeatedly let people down. You will get the reputation for being flaky and people will stop asking you.

The ability to say no unambiguously obviously extends well beyond the social sphere. If someone asks you to do them a favour, an evasive answer is no substitute for a straightforward refusal (“I’m afraid that won’t be possible”).  You can mitigate the blow by suggesting an alternative option (“I’m sorry, I won’t be able to help you move house next week, but I can give you the number of an excellent removal company.”)

Be careful you don’t fall into the trap of being an affirmative, appeasing person who agrees to everything, and then proceeds to let people down and leave them in the lurch.

The rules of restaurants

After the difficulties of the last two years, we might still be a bit rusty when it comes to hosting meals in a restaurant, dining in a big group, or dealing with complaints or special dietary requirements.

Get the most out of the restaurant dining experience by following these simple rules:

Reservations

Whenever possible, make a reservation – always book if you are dining in a group, and discuss any special requirements, such as seating with step-free access, with the restaurant in advance.

Diets and Allergies

It is also a good idea to alert the restaurant in advance if guests have allergies or dietary restrictions. You might need to check, for example, if they offer gluten free or vegan options, and it is helpful to give them forewarning so they can make advance provision.

Choice of Table

If you are unhappy with the table you are allocated, ask whether it is possible to be accommodated elsewhere, but do this before you sit down to minimise disturbance for adjacent diners.

If the waiter assists a woman in taking her seat, she should accept this old-fashioned chivalry graciously, and wait until the chair is touching the back of her knees before beginning to sit down.

Wine and Water

Restaurants should now offer tap, as well as bottled, water, and it is always acceptable to ask for tap water. 

If you are hosting (ie paying) in a restaurant, then it is up to you to choose the wine. If you are dining in a large group, where the costs of the meal are to be shared, it helps if somebody takes control of ordering the wine, which means enlisting a consensus choice from the assembled company. If you are the designated wine selector, consult with your fellow diners over the choice of wine. Don’t make assumptions about how much they are willing to pay – the easiest option in these circumstances is often to go for the house wine, so it might be sensible to steer your companions in this direction.

Ordering

When dining in a group, you should try to agree collectively on the number of courses. Once you have chosen, close your menu. If you know that someone else will be picking up the bill, choose modestly. If you are footing the bill, you should suggest to your guests that they have free rein.

If you are dining in a group where everyone is paying, try and ensure that diners are ordering the same number of courses and comparably priced dishes. It helps if one person takes charge and makes this explicit at the beginning of the meal.

Normally, everyone at the table is served at the same time. Wait until all dishes have arrived at the table before starting. If yours is lagging behind, insist the others start, and wait a few minutes before quietly enquiring as to where yours is.

Complaining

If you are dissatisfied with the food, say so discreetly and with minimal fuss, and request any necessary (and reasonable) changes. Keep things pleasant, and don’t shoot the messenger. Be aware that excessive complaining may spoil your companions’ evening.  Never revert to sulking or playing the martyr if you’re dissatisfied – that way you’ll make everyone uncomfortable. If you are merely disappointed with your meal, keep it to yourself – you don’t want to strike a sour note.

Paying

There is one abiding rule – the person who requests the pleasure, pays for the pleasure. So, as a simple point of etiquette, you should pick up the tab for a lunch, dinner or drinks – whether dating or business lunching – if you have invited the other people.

Going Dutch is not recommended on a date. Instead, the person who issued the invitation should pick up the tab.

Splitting the bill is fine for bigger restaurant gatherings. Costs should be divided equally; niggling about the comparative cost of dishes and drinks will be embarrassing and look cheap. It is to be hoped that the preliminary discussions around the ordering process will ensure that most people’s orders are comparable. If there are gross inequities, for example one person ordering the lobster while everyone else is happy with fish and chips, then it behoves the extravagant diner to make a gracious gesture, such as paying for the tip.

Tipping

In the UK, tipping in restaurants is usually ‘discretionary’, but it is more discretionary in some places than others so check your bill. ‘Service not included’ means just that, and it is usual to offer between 10–15 per cent.

Since most transactions these days are by card, the tip is usually added as part of the card transaction. Leaving cash is still the method favoured by restaurant staff – but don’t just offload a pile of small coins, it looks contemptuous.

Many establishments will add a discretionary percentage automatically. You are not obliged to pay this if service has been noticeably poor, and in some circumstances it is acceptable to ask for it to be removed.

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