this week's problem

When Althea lavishly entertained her husband's old friend and the friend's new wife for the weekend, with champagne, parties and trips, she expected a thank-you letter. None came. Her husband says to forget it; they thanked her verbally, after all, and brought some mints. But Althea feels unappreciated and never wants to see them again. Is she old- fashioned?

How polite is a thank-you letter? Only when it is appropriate. For instance, were my son to write me a letter after I'd organised his 21st birthday party, I'd wonder what was wrong with our relationship. Why was he being so formal? What had I done to make him keep me at arm's length? Similarly, I don't always write after spending the weekend with old friends. Now and again, yes, but they do their best to make me feel like one of the family and to write each time would be to tell them very clearly that, despite their efforts, I don't.

Since Althea's guests were unlikely to have felt blissfully at ease during their hectic weekend, it's more likely they're not writing because they feel overwhelmed by being force-fed champagne and treats. They may have felt a thank-you letter could only be a completely inadequate response. They might have felt so utterly out of their depths that rather than risk making a fool of themselves on paper they simply shimmered away into the distance, shuddering with embarrassment that they could ever have thought a mere box of mints was an adequate gift for such a lavish household. After all, were one asked to a banquet by the Queen, it's unlikely one would pen a letter the following day: "Dear Queen Elizabeth, A superb evening! The guests, the wine, the food, all combined to make a memorable occasion. (Where did you find those teensy potatoes? And that riveting man on my left, the Prince of Romania? Quel dish! )"

Or it simply could be that Althea's guests have never been taught that writing a bread-and-butter letter is good manners. Had Althea entertained a couple of Anderman Islanders, after all, she would have been astonished to receive a beautifully penned letter within 24 hours. Maybe the culture, the new acceptable word for class, of her guests was quite different from her own.

But the tone of Althea's letter is aggressive, and it's hard not to wonder whether she resented the visit of her husband's old friend and his new wife. Inappropriate hospitality can be used as the same kind of weapon as neglect, after all. My father, irritated by a rakish colleague who asked to doss down on his floor for a night after a bash, made up a bed with clean sheets, provided a towel and pair of clean pyjamas, installed a jug of iced water and flowers on the side-table and waited up in his dressing gown till 3am to ask the party-goer what time he would like breakfast. He was never asked for a bed again.

Perhaps Althea's guests detected angry, unwelcoming undertones. Or did they spot that it was all prepared, partly for her own sake, rather than for her guests? They saw that she enjoyed the power of dragooning people into trips and stuffing their faces with food and drink.

Yes, a letter or phone call would have been nice. But does all this really merit Althea getting so worked up that she would prefer never to see the couple again? An appropriate response would be to be miffed. Extremely miffed, if she likes. But it would be madness to refuse to see them again. For the only way she can get her own back is to accept their next invitation, assuming they ever dare invite Althea and her husband to share their modest meal, and then dazzle them, 24 hours later, with the spectacular, glowing thank-you letter that she would have liked to have received herself.

readers' responses

Althea is being old-fashioned in expecting a letter of thanks from her visitors. Many people these days do not write letters, and few people would consider it impolite not to do so. But did anybody ask her to exhaust herself for her guests' benefit?

I expect not. Althea is being a tyrant in that she is demanding that others live their lives by her set of rules. Her poor visitors were rushed around all weekend thoroughly intimidated by the fuss being made, when perhaps all they expected was a quiet meal and a few glasses of wine with two of her husband's old friends. I wonder whether they will ever feel able to invite this couple back, or will the fear of appearing totally mean and inadequate deter them completely?

Kate Amos

Hereford & Worcester

I have tried all ways of overcoming my irritation at the few who take one's efforts for granted. Now when I know I'm entertaining one of those casual types I do the minimum of preparation and hence feel less tired and more able to cope with their casual attitude.

Should my hospitality be reciprocated, there will be a thank-you letter, first class, in the post the following day. Maybe something will rub off! But I don't intend to sink to their levels of discourtesy.

Elizabeth Hooper

Isle of Wight

In all, I reckon that I spend about pounds 10,000 a year on friends, through dinners, drinks, cards, presents, weddings, etc. But no longer will I be splashing out on peripheral people. The returns, such as they are, are just not worth it. And all I want in return, like Althea, is to have the cost of a first-class stamp and a card with a brief note to say how much they enjoyed the dinner, weekend, present. Or, if that is still too much effort, a phone call the next day to say thank you.

I know it all sounds very fuddy-duddy in this day and age, but my girlfriend and I are only 30. We in no way see ourselves as fuddy-duddy, but we have both been brought up to believe in good manners, and good manners means "please" and "thank you". I remember well the slaps I got and the time spent in my room for being impolite, not saying thank you, and even for sitting on the arm of an armchair at a friend's house!

Vincent Jones

London

What's wrong with being old-fashioned if it also means being polite and thinking of others? As a teenager I once gate-crashed a party with 12 friends and we all stayed the night. The host's mother was not too pleased. On our way home I wrote a "bread and butter" letter and we all signed it. A few days later I heard that the mother was saying what delightful young people we were! Althea is right, a simple postcard makes all the difference. It's like a social receipt.

Janie Hampton

Oxfordshire

Perhaps far from feeling grateful, your guests felt humiliated. Your husband's old friend would probably have liked to talk about old times and introduce his wife to you both. They'd have enjoyed eating with you and helping you with the meal, a drink in the pub, an exchange of garden problems. They don't seem to have expected much: a box of mints is a friendly present, not an impressive one.

And what did they get? An OTT hostess who was so busy impressing them with guided tours and a lavish party, even including another old friend who got the same treatment, that she couldn't give them any time: nothing of herself - no friendship.

Jill Groves

Bedfordhire

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My son, who was only 13 last month, went shopping with me last week so that he could spend some of his Christmas money. To my horror, he seriously wanted to buy a large poster of a semi-nude woman - not anyone in particular, but just any of the several available in the shop. Not only was I shocked at the early age at which he is starting to participate in all this but also over the more obvious subject of how women are exploited for this kind of display.

While I don't want to make him feel he has to cover up his feelings and consequently make them a hidden thing (mags under the bed etc), I don't know how to approach this in the light of his age and understanding. He has three older sisters who are intelligent, thoughtful girls but a father who brings home newspapers like the Daily Star and thinks that nude and semi-nude posing is OK.

I don't want to blow this all out of proportion, but I also don't want my son to think that it is OK for women to be degraded like this, no matter what his father or his peers think.

Yours sincerely, Sam

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, 'The Independent', One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171- 293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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