Monthly Archives: January 2014

On living with flatmates

Photo from

Happy flatmates. Photo from

I have been a good flatmate, and I’ve been a very bad flatmate. I’d like to think I have finally achieved a happy “just off the middle” ground. My flatmate Gigi calls me “Kate-monster”. I would have taken exception to this moniker, had it not contained a modicum of truth. So, from my wealth of experience, here is The Etiquette Butterfly’s guide to harmonious house sharing.

1. Be considerate

Always ask before helping yourself to other people’s food or borrowing their things. Wash what you use as soon as possible. Leaving the one plate that you did not use unwashed is petty.

If they are in a rush, let them use the communal facilities first—bathroom, washing machine, etc. If you find the housework is not getting done, make a rota and stick to it.

2. Prepare to share

Your room is your own personal space to do as you wish, but communal areas are not. Do not let your clutter to become part of the furniture. Try to be generous when buying communal supplies such as cleaning products.

Keep your partner's clutter out of communal areas. Photo from

Keep your partner’s clutter out of communal areas. Photo from

3. Guests

Nobody wants to find a stranger in their house, so let your flatmates know if you have guests staying. You are responsible for providing for your guests. Guests should not bring their own friends to your place. Read my previous post on how to be the perfect host. If your partner all but moves in, your responsibility is doubled.



Inform and invite your flatmates to parties or gatherings you may have in the house. By the same token, also attend their parties. Find the balance so that you are neither festering in the house nor always be out.

5. Living with the landlord

I’ve done this on two occasions. The first, a very happy experience; the less said about the other, the better. If you are renting, then all flatmates should have equal responsibilities and rights. When you live with the owner of the house, you must accept that they have the last word on any decisions.

Sharing a space is a minefield. Try not to let the little things get to you, and don’t blow things out of proportion. The key is to communicate any concerns as soon as it arises. If tasks are not done to your standards, do it yourself without complaint. Should the living situation get really bad, move out.


Query: The engagement is off, who keeps the ring?

Dear Etikate,
If an engagement falls through, what is the social convention with the ring?
-via Facebook

Photo from

Photo from

Dear Readers

I mentioned in my previous post that engagements involve numerous formalities and rituals. This holds true even in its cancellation.

Contrary to the announcement of the engagement, it is not necessary to announce the cancellation. Tell a few strategic people in your inner circle and the news will circulate through word of mouth.

If invitations have already been sent out, a note must be sent to the guests informing them of the cancellation. The reason for the cancellation does not need to be given.

All gifts should be returned, enclosed with a card thanking them for their generosity. Something along the lines of “Thank you for your generous gift, but the wedding will no longer take place.”

Now ladies, on to the ring.

Ladies, do not wait to be asked before you return the ring. Photo from

Ladies, do return the ring before you are asked. Photo from

If you decide to call off the wedding, then return the ring to your now ex-fiancé. Do not wait to be asked. This is especially the case if it’s his family heirloom.

There are some schools of thought that believe the bride may keep the ring if the groom breaks off the engagement or is found guilty of infidelity, for instance. I can only interpret this as “reparation” for the bride losing face over the cancellation.

If he insists that you keep the ring, then do so. I would suggest selling it and going on a luxury holiday with the proceeds. After all, nobody wants to keep something that symbolises at best an amicable parting of ways or at worst, a very painful humiliation.


EtiKate will answer your etiquette related questions. Submit your problems, dilemmas or queries in the Dear EtiKate section.

Rules of engagement for the couple and everyone else

Photo from

Photo from

Judging by my Twitter feed, Christmas was a very popular time to propose. My page was flooded with photos of hands showing glittering diamonds. Tweets with #heproposed or #engaged abound.

Engagements and weddings are tied with all manner of traditions and rituals. From my experience, it has become easier since the turn of this century.

Formalities begin with asking the parents. If the proposal comes before the permission, the parents must be asked (or told) shortly afterwards.


Parents should be told first, then family, then friends and colleagues. Changing your marital status on Facebook has increasingly become the way to announce an engagement. Before a mass Facebook announcement, your closest friends should first be honoured with a phone call or at the very least a private message on Facebook. Peripheral friends can settle for a photo of the ring on your wall. Announcements may feel self-important and attention seeking to more reserved couples, but friends do not like to hear life-changing news (especially happy ones) through the grapevine.

Arguably the world's most famous engagement ring. Photo from

Arguably the most recognisable engagement ring in the world. Photo from

If so desired, the bride’s parents can announce the engagement through the ‘Forthcoming Marriages’ column of the paper. However, the reliance on print media has declined. This should not be the only means of announcement. Traditionally, the groom-to-be’s mother writes to the bride-to-be’s parents expressing her joy at the engagement.

Ladies, this will probably be the only time in your life where your hands will be such a focus of attention. Keep hands moisturised and nails neat, and if possible, polished. Avoid unsightly chipped or peeling nail polish at all times.

Congratulations and best wishes

It might as well say

It might as well say “You’ve landed a nice one!”

Traditionally, one congratulates the groom and offers best wishes to the bride. This is because offering congratulations to the bride could convey that she is somehow ‘lucky’ to have caught a man (see evidence from a sample greeting card above).

Modern etiquette seem to suggest it is now acceptable to congratulate the bride, although it is still frowned upon in some circles. What I can say with certainty is congratulating the bride is no longer code for “You finally got one!”

Personally, I still offer my best wishes to the bride. That’s how I’ve done it since my youngest aunt married when I was 11, when saying ‘congratulations’ was a faux pas. However you choose to do it, consider the people around you when conveying your happy thoughts of hope to the couple.

A sweet card congratulating the couple. Photo from we

Do send a sweet card to congratulate the couple. Photo from we

Again, traditionally, one only addresses letters of congratulations (or best wishes) to either the bride or the groom, never jointly—heaven forbid the act of living in sin is recognised! I find this archaic and frankly, parochial. Modern day well-wishers don’t see why the couple cannot be congratulated together. If both the bride and the groom are known to you, write to both.

Engagements are a social experience and an exercise in etiquette. The one rule you can always count on is all forms of congratulations or well wishes will only be received with a very happy and sincere “thank you”.

With all good wishes,

Mrs Obama asks party guests to ‘eat before you come’

The Washington Post has reported that First Lady Michelle Obama will celebrate her 50th birthday on 18 January with a food-light dance party at the White House. The save the date e-mail advised guests to wear comfortable shoes, practice their dance moves and to dine before arriving. The instructions have left some etiquette experts perplexed.

Mrs Obama, dancing in the State Dining Room. Photo from The Daily News

Mrs Obama, dancing in the State Dining Room. Photo from The Daily News

Colin Cowie, Oprah Winfrey’s go-to entertainment guru, worded his reaction gracefully. ‘To ask people to “eat before you come” is not the way I would have done it,’ Cowie said. ‘I always think of the food. When it comes to making people feel welcome we give them great music, a well-stocked bar, and excellent food — and you do it abundantly.’

Elomo joins Mrs Obama to promote healthy eating.

Elomo joins Mrs Obama to promote healthy eating. Photo from

Through the Let’s Move! organisation, Mrs Obama is often seen working out, and promoting healthy eating with the aim of curbing childhood obesity in the US. Perhaps if food was served in abundance at her 50th birthday bash, the guests would be in discomfort when expected to ‘let loose’ on the dance floor.

Back in my undergraduate days in Scotland, we often attended ceilidhs and balls where food was never served. There was a bar and sometimes ice cream, but guests were expected to arrive with full stomachs, ready to carve up the dance floor.

I will be honest, I have never been to a party where guests were specifically asked to eat before attending. Parties for me have always been surrounded with food. Growing up, it was considered shameful to appear parsimonious. Food fit for seven would have been served to a table of four. It’s a bit extravagant, but these customs were observed.

I cannot help but be partial on this issue. I absolutely adore Mrs Obama. I don’t believe she has put one elegant foot wrong in her role as First Lady of the US. Whether Mrs Obama’s “eat before you come” will become a trend for soirées remains to be seen. What she has done correctly is to inform her guests beforehand so that people are not caught unawares. Imagine if she hadn’t—guests giving each other awkward looks, wondering when the butler will announce dinner.

I have not seen the save the date e-mail with the “eat before you come” directive. In any case, I doubt Mrs Obama would have put it so indelicately. From what I gather, hors d’œuvres and sweets would be served at the dance party. And that’s precisely what this is—a dance (with no dinner) party.

My advice to readers is to put in the invitation what will be served instead of what guests should do. If instructions to guests cannot be omitted, it’s better to enclose these in a little card separate from the actual invitation.

Etiquette is dynamic and hierarchical. People of a certain social standing can forgo some of the conventions. That’s how social groups know if others are “one of them”. They have earned or have been born into the privilege; the same way a wealthy person has “eccentricities” but never “crazies”. I’ll leave you with this thought to consider: the only time it is acceptable to sip champagne from a paper cup is when you are sailing on your own yacht.    



The Perfect Host

I approach having house guests like an elaborate play- this means setting the scene, the performance and finally, the curtain.


Any episode of Come Dine with Me will bring to mind guests poking around in every part of the house. It’s your life and tastes that are under inspection.

Photo from

Clean the house prior to guests arrivng. Photo from

Prior to the guests’ arrival, give the house a thorough clean, and hide all your secrets. If a guest should mistakenly open the airing cupboard, all they should find are neatly folded linen.

Hosts should plan guest entertainment such as games, walks, pubs or a visit to the neighbouring stately home. Guests need packing instructions for planned activities and the provisions of your house.

The guest bedrooms must meet good B&B standards. Provide crisp, clean sheets, at least two pillows per person , blankets, hangers and towels. The bathroom should be stocked with basic toiletries.

‘Oh, do make yourselves feel at home!’

You should expect to receive a house gift. This may come in the form or sweets, wine, a house plant or a meal during their stay.

Photo from

Photo from

Briefly show your guests around the house; limit it to the sitting room, kitchen, bathrooms and guest bedrooms. Now would be a good time to point out the little quirks of the house, for instance, ‘The lock on the bathroom door is broken, so a closed door means occupied.”

Depending on the length of their journey, guests may want to freshen up or rest straight away. Ask if they wish to do so, and have tea ready whenever they would like it. Only after this point can you gently impart the house rules. To avoid your guests feeling like they have entered boot camp, stick to bare minimum you simply cannot abide by.

Photo from

Hospitality, as is tea, should be free-flowing. Photo from

According to Debrett’s, ‘The unspoken code of hosting is to go slightly out of one’s way in honour of one’s guest.’ Three square meals a day must be provided, plus snacks and tea whenever it’s called for.

Breakfast is a breeze as it pleases even the pickiest eaters. The trickiest part is what time to serve it as some of us are larks and some of us are owls. Let guests know if it is to be taken together or whenever they care for it. Guests must never be harried out of bed.

Your sense of hospitality must be free-flowing, but don’t be a martyr. Accept help around the house when it is offered. Constant company uses up oxygen fast, so know when to take breaks from each other. Guests are a lot like children, they should neither be smothered nor neglected.

Photo from

Photo from

Take a bow

Overnight guests usually take the hint after breakfast has been served. You can usually expect weekend guests to leave after lunch. When your guests prepare to depart, look sad to see them go. But if it seems like they might never leave, a quiet word should embarrass them into moving.

Sometimes you will have to cater for unexpected guests—a  damsel in distress on the doorstep or someone who overdid it at last night’s party. Hosts should apply a deceasing scale of hospitality here. Be selfless and giving at the start and let it slip once your guests start becoming a nuisance. Once tea and other comforts have been withdrawn, their own homes will seem more appealing.

Those who ‘just pop by’ do not need to be welcomed every time. In fact, since Facebook and mobile phones, it is impolite not to give warning. Unwelcome, unannounced guests should be dealt with directly. If fabricating little white lies (appointments, tradesmen doing work) is beneath you, say instead, ‘I’d ask you in, but now is not the best time.’ Back in her day, Granny used to always answer the door with a hat on; that way, if someone unwelcome is at the door, she could convincingly say, ‘Actually, I’m just on my way out.’

Query: Do I send thank you notes to my family?

Send thank you notes for gifts received through post.  Photo from

Send thank you notes for gifts received through post.
Photo from

Dear EtiKate
Happy New Year! Do I need to write thank you letters to my family when I have already thanked them on Christmas day?

Dear Readers

The best way to thank someone for a gift is in person. Thank you notes are needed as gifts are usually opened away from the giver.

Thank you notes should be sent to people to let them know that you have received and appreciate the gifts.

If you have thanked your family personally after having opened their gifts, then you do not need to send a thank you note. Bear in mind though, the more “old school” members of your family might still expect a thank you letter, and you should write to them.

For those who spent Christmas with another family, remember to write to thank them for their hospitality.