Last updated: February 15, 2013 11:03 pm

A place for everyone?

What to do when someone claims a vacant seat in a public place? Make sure you don’t end up with a bully if you react

Sir David Tang, entrepreneur and founder of ICorrect, offers advice on questions about property, interiors – and modern manners for globetrotters

I was about to take a vacant seat in a fairly crowded airport lounge this afternoon, only to be snarled at by a fellow halfway across the room: “That’s my chair!”. I was taught by my father not to contest such trivial things because it is unbecoming (he boxed and played rugby for the army so his attitude hardly stemmed from weakness). I silently raised an eyebrow and found somewhere else. However, I can’t help but feel that my father’s thinking was formed in a time when people were simply much better behaved. If you were in my situation, what would you have done?

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David Tang

I despise those who believe that they are entitled to bags seats in public places. Particularly selfish are those who put their bags on adjacent seats and claim that they belong to a friend or family member who has gone to the loo. The way I would react is to gauge the physical size and demeanour of the culprit. If it were a burly man with a beer paunch and hair sticking out of his chest with a mouth of disjointed teeth and fists fat enough to lard the earth, then I think I might take your father’s advice and repair to the nearest WH Smith to look for a Bounty chocolate bar to pass the time. On the other hand, if the man were a complete weed, wearing glasses and as thin as a single chop stick with limbs that look fragile and brittle, then I would march up and assert my authority by demanding that his bags be removed at once so that I could sit down. The only trouble with this “pragmatic” approach is if, as happened to me once, the burly man happens to be related to the weedy one and arrives to claim his stuff on the seat. That is the moment when a coward might beat a hasty retreat. So forget about your father or how the manners of the world might have changed, just make sure you don’t end up with a bully.

. . .

With largish dinner parties for, say, 30 or more, how does one cope with last-minute cancellations which invariably put out the places à table? And should one get furious with people who cancel at the last minute?

I have come to resign myself to the fact that nowadays there will always be five or six people who cancel at the last minute either because they are liars or half-liars or quarter-liars. People always say they have a cold or flu and do not wish to pass it on to me nor my guests, which is a pathetic excuse. I hear this so often that I regard it as a white lie. Then there are all sorts of other excuses which are really irrelevant if they ain’t coming. And it is extremely boring to have to juggle round the guests with cancellations. I once adopted the placement simply in alphabetical order for a dinner for 90 people, believing that cancellations would become irrelevant. Amazingly, on that occasion, there wasn’t a single cancellation. Mind you, it was a dinner I was giving for a 90-year-old man. So most of his guests were geris. I am sure that they belonged to that dependable generation who don’t cancel just because they feel a little chill coming on.

Worst of all, however, are those who at the last minute cancel a shoot which takes a great deal of organisation, not to mention expense. Particularly annoying is if they regard mercantile emergencies as a sufficiently good excuse for a midweek shoot. There is clearly some truth in what I was brought up to believe – that gentlemen don’t shoot at weekends!

. . .

Would you please elaborate why one should never start a thank-you letter with the words “thank you”?

Starting a thank-you letter with the words “thank you” makes you lazy. Also after you have made your thanks, you have peaked and need to finish. What is much more effective, surely, is to import a crescendo of some sort so that your missive builds up to the climax of the thanks. President Obama was sent Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi, and in his letter to the author, he wrote:

“Mr Martel, My daughter and I just finished reading Life of Pi together. Both of us agreed we prefer the story with animals. It is a lovely book – an elegant proof of God, and the powers of storytelling. Thank you. Barack Obama.”

See how the “thank you” goes at the end and not the beginning!

Indeed, if you search online for “famous letters of thanks”, you will find that 90 per cent of them do not start with the words “thank you”, and the best ones never do.

Email questions to david.tang@ft.com

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