July 8, 2011 10:02 pm

Manners maketh man – but mobiles maketh morons

What does one do when an extra guest turns up for a sit-down dinner? Keep calm and improvise

Sir David Tang, founder of ICorrect, globetrotter and the man about too many towns to mention, divides his time between homes in Hong Kong, mainland China and London. Here he invites readers’ queries for his advice on property, interiors, etiquette at home (wherever you live), parties and anything else that may be bothering you.

What does one do when an extra guest turns up for a sit-down dinner, either because of an admin error or through another guest bringing along someone extra?

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Once Sir Philip Green and Richard Caring asked me to bring “Boris” to dinner, when they meant Boris Johnson, and I genuinely thought they meant Boris Berezovsky. On the night I was late, and a short bald Russian oligarch, instead of a spiky-haired tall Caucasian, turned up at Sir Philip’s pad. To give him his due, he welcomed his surprise guest, possibly because of the two rather burly bodyguards in tow. By the time I arrived, we had realised the comedy of errors for which Evelyn Waugh could not have written a better Scoop if he had tried! We dined together as if nothing had happened, even if I glimpsed a few contorted faces from my hosts. But full marks to them for playing the entire pantomime out with real style.

The climax of the evening came when I eventually took Berezovsky off the premises, who then asked me, “Who were those two people?” Green was heard laughing aloud for a whole day afterwards. I did produce Boris Johnson at a subsequent dinner. Needless to say, we all chuckled non-stop. The exemplary lesson from Green is to keep calm, and just improvise on the cameo surprise. The trick is to achieve accommodation as an acrobatic host and not to become a whinger who doesn’t rise to the social challenge.

My wife is an avid user of Facebook. An acquaintance of ours who lives abroad is moving to London, and sent a round-robin e-mail to a number of attractive women, saying “he was moving to London, and would they like to meet for coffee?” Amusingly for us, as we know this guy quite well, one of these women was my wife. She is at a bit of a loss as to what to reply.

Your wife should send the following reply, also as a round-robin: “My husband and I would be delighted to meet you for a quick cup of coffee when you come to London. But please do not pretend to be friendly to my husband and wink at me like an Ovidian lover, because I will never have an affair with you. I am also circulating this to warn all of my girlfriends and your prospective female friends.” I think this circular will well prepare him for London.

What is the protocol that one should follow in speaking first at dinner to the lady on your left or right? When should you change to the other side without just dropping the first person to whom you spoke? And what do you do if the person on the other side of her is not following the same rule as you?

Who do you think you are? The Duke of Edinburgh? The duke must have eaten 100,000 formal dinners during his 65 years of marriage. So he would have an understandable excuse to oscillate mechanically in a half-pendulum between his adjacent guests. But you are not the Duke of Edinburgh, and therefore you should really concentrate on the quality of your conversation rather than its length.

Politeness always comes with a bit of effort, and an implicit duty of yours as a dinner guest is to amuse your fellow companions. So never start off with pedestrian questions like “What does your husband do?”, or “How many children do you have?” Once you ignite such a boring wick, you are bound to spiral into an abyss of bourgeois tedium. Always surprise your guests with a provocative question. A woman once said to Henry Kissinger, “I am told that you are a fascinating man. Fascinate me.” So imagine how you would respond if you were Henry Kissinger.

Once you get an amusing conversation going, you would not have to worry about how much time you have to spend on either side. I once sat between Barbara Black and Joan Collins but didn’t have enough time to go through their combined husbands.

E-mail questions to david.tang@ft.com

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The lesser of two vices

A Martian flying past Earth on holiday might be forgiven for believing that the head of a human is always perched at 45 degrees to the shoulder, and that a lot of them love being huddled together with smoke coming off their fingers.

Blackberry

The alien is of course observing two phenomena of our modern so-called civilised life: first, the reading of the BlackBerry and iPhone; and second, the gathering of defiant smokers continuing to enjoy spiritual sustenance with tobacco, which provides the UK government with £4bn worth of tax every year.

I always lay a bet against myself on arrival in a plane on the number of people I see who don’t automatically take out their BlackBerries and iPhones and start reading and typing. Usually, I go for a modest 10-20 per cent, but lately I have been losing. I rarely see anyone who does not engage with their electronic device at the moment they get up from their seat in the cabin. It is as if a dog had been shut up in a cage for hours and is desperate to seek relief.

The more astonishing sight is how everyone continues to work on their pocket machines after leaving the plane, walking towards immigration and customs. Can all of these people have urgent things to do? Or emergencies to respond to? Can none of them wait? Can none of them resist?

In the car, of course, they carry on looking down into their palms and even when they are getting out on to the curb, half struggling with their wheelie, they won’t let go of their BlackBerry or iPhone. At every possible moment of waiting, even in between sentences at the reception of a hotel or en route to one’s room, the modern man or woman seems to be sewn on to their tiny screen.

Even in concert halls, theatres and cinemas, BlackBerries and iPhones are not only ubiquitous but ubiquitously lit. The trouble with this is that you can’t even tell them to shut up because they are not talking but just looking, irritatingly with a shining face!

At meal times nowadays, there are always drooped heads scanning for messages and typing replies, paying little attention to those sitting round the table. I am now reduced to using my own BlackBerry to remind those sitting across the table with me that I wouldn’t mind a little conversation. My wife sits up in bed with her tablet in one hand and the other stroking our dogs, while paying her husband scant attention.

To attract it, I always have to light up a Havana, usually a double corona for maximum effect, so that she will at least use one of her hands to wave a disdainful complaint, screwing up her face and barking at me for being hugely inconsiderate. At that point, I usually have to remind her that part of the reason of my marrying her was because she smoked. Now that she has given up, I am not sure if it is not force majeure, giving rise to grounds for divorce. But of course I will be crippled without my wife!

The question for me is how we can curb the use of the BlackBerry and iPhone and revert to the days when smoking is not regarded as a felony. I fear, however, that only more and more people will charge on, like the Light Brigade, with the use of the BlackBerry and iPhone, while those of us who enjoy smoking will be further ostracised to the point of having to hide in order to savour that glorious nicotine substance that had stimulated the likes of Schubert and Einstein and Churchill.

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