MADAM MARCHAND'S SOCIAL NAVIGATION ADVICE NARRATED BY OUR COLUMNIST AISTĖ ANUSAITĖ-DAUBARAS.
Illustrated by MARIA DEVLIN O’REILLY
Whenever I am asked for advice on Do’s and Don’ts of English small talk, I always recall an amusing quote from Henry James’ brilliant novel The Portrait of a Lady, where a son chides his American father, because in his thirty years of living in England he has “picked up a good many of things they say. But (...) never learned the things they don’t say”. Indeed, mes amies, the knowledge of what not to say can be of paramount importance in certain circumstances and societies.
So with a party season looming again, allow me to offer a few suggestions of which topics to steer clear of in order not to make a dreaded faux pas.
Firstly, I would strongly advocate avoiding the subject of money. It is considered very rude to ask ‘How much do you earn?” or “How much did you pay for this?”. Equally it is a très mauvais ton to boast about one's bonus figures or to complain about ones impoverished state (honestly, random people you might encounter socially won’t care). Even in this age of colour-coded credit cards, which give away the person's wealth, and wide-spread habit of bragging on social media about one's new purchases, it is still a big no-no in a polite society to blab about your or other peoples’ wealth or the lack of it. It seams to me, that English upper-classes go to great lengths in order to avoid mentioning the word “money” altogether. “Who is inviting?” they would ask when trying to find out who is planning to pick up the bill. Or gush breezily “Oh, what a lovely trinket!” when complimenting someone's gazillion carat diamond broach. You see, in the past, the so-called leisure classes, would have inherited their houses, jewels and art from their ancestors, so they never could nor would put a price tag on anything. Of cause, you might say, times have changed and we work hard to earn everything so why not to show-off the fruits of our labour. Well, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, yet in my view, the correct answer to a compliment “What a lovely handbag!” would be “Oh, thank you, isn’t it just the prettiest shade of green!” rather than gloat “You never guess how much I paid for it...”. Voilà, evident, isn’t it.
Another topic, which does not make a good small talk, is one's health. Do you want to hear about other peoples’ bodily functions? I suppose not, so why do you assume they would be keen on listening about yours? If quite unfortunately, you would find yourself unwell on a day of a social function, either send your apologies and stay at home, or take a few aspirins and a stiff drink and bravely solder on (but no cheating). Asses your condition carefully and honestly and make your decision. Sometimes it is best to skip a party, as it is very unlikely you would leave a favourable impression if you keep sneezing into communal peanuts whilst offloading gruesome details of your wretched predicament to anyone who would care to listen. In any case, soon you will be left standing alone.
Another ill advised topic in mixed gatherings is politics. There is a proper time and place for this, and by all means, if you are in a group of likeminded people or the purpose of your assemblage is to discuss current affairs, fire way. Yet amongst the throng of people you do not know that well, perhaps, is better not to, as you can really touch a sensitive spot which could flare into a very unwelcome heated discussion (huge risk to be struck from the hostess’ guest-list for life).
The same should be said about subjects of sexual orientation and religion.
Yet in our contradictory times of decline of good manners, on one hand, and political correctness, on the other (which, I can only second Debrett’s, is a good thought gone terribly wrong), it is becoming rather a challenging task to balance on a rope of a correct social conduct.
Well, if in doubt, an application of an old good tact should serve you as a handy yardstick. And even in the most perilous situations, a touch of self-depreciation and a generous helping of a sense of humour should save your burning derrière no matter how big a faux pas.
Bonne chance, mes amis, et joyeux noël!