Agony Uncle: On Dinner Parties, May Ball Tickets, and Bedtime Reading

Paramvir Singh Khera 29 January 2019
Image Credit: Anuj Bhalla

I have been recently surprised to see people starting their food at dinner parties before the wife of the host, or indeed female host, begins. Do you think this represents a deep problem with modern society or simply a basic lack of manners?

It is rather unfair to accuse someone of having a lack of manners if they were never aware of the basic etiquette rules in the first place. I would, therefore, stick with the safer option and accuse them of embodying all the ills of modern society. It really is unfortunate that the public, especially young people, that struggle with such issues are apparently too lazy to check Debrett’s before going to dinner. We seem to have lost sight of why issues such as these matter: not only is it a mark of respect to your host to allow them to properly carry out their duties of leading the meal, but it is also vital to maintain the order and proper sense of ceremony that distinguishes civilised people enjoying their entrée from jackals tearing at a bloody carcass. Decorum seems to be crumbling much like a block of Stilton, which, coincidentally, one should only start after the wife of the host has taken her fair share.

I would note here that this rule may not apply in all cultures, and my answer assumes you to be British and amongst British company. In many Eastern cultures it would be usual for the most important, socially senior, or elderly person to begin the meal. If you are dining with foreign guests, it may be the case that they are adhering to this system and simply have an inflated sense of self-importance (which is a different form of bad manners entirely).


The May Ball ticket season is now upon us, and there are a few balls I have had my eye on. However, I always feel awkward about asking my friends to procure tickets for me. How do I get the tickets I want without it looking like I am just using my friends?

If you think that you may be using someone by asking for a May Ball ticket, then it is likely that you are. You would obviously only conceive of this awkwardness if it actually existed, and then I think the best course of action is to embrace it. You may not have a best friend at every college to whom you can turn to for tickets, but that does not mean you should resign yourself to having an empty May Week. If someone is willing to give you a Trinity ticket for face value despite being an arm’s length acquaintance, more fool them: there is no shame in looking out for number one.

I would, however, advise against leading on a member of the opposite sex to acquire a ticket, but knowing the inquirer I am sure that is well outside the bounds of the question…


I am often caught between mutually incompatible urges: to socialise, see the world, and make the most of Cambridge nightlife, but avoid drinking excessively for the obvious reasons. I am caught between the bottle and social isolation; can you point me to the exit?

Oh dear. I am never usually stumped by a question but this one seems so unbearably tragic I hardly know where to begin. Firstly, your apparent association of socialising, seeing the world, and Cambridge nightlife seems odd at best, I hardly think the Ballare smoking area constitutes “seeing the world”, though it does certainly boast some of the most incredible sights this side of the Great Pyramids. In any case, alcohol never helps anything and makes a great deal of things worse. I am willing to bet you have never tried to accomplish your aforementioned aims without it, because you would have already seen how liberating and easy it is. After resting your liver for a while, I would encourage you to take up some real hobbies: literature, art, theatre (but under no circumstances of the musical variety). I think you may find the comfort you seek not in the arms of an unknown and dubious stranger on a night out, but instead in the arms of Leo Tolstoy or Petyr Tchaikovsky. In fact, a friend of mine recently eschewed a night out after dinner for the pleasant alternative of “having a glass of wine and settling down with a book for an hour before bed”. All present were in agreement that the point was cogently made and pledged to do the same. So there, you do not even have to give up the booze.

All I can say in conclusion is that I feel rather sorry for you and hope this question was at least partially in jest.


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