Dear Mary

Dear Mary: How do I tell my neighbours I’m too busy to stop for a chat?

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

Q. My parents are abroad for two months and as my flatmates in London are all, like me, working from home, I’ve moved to their country cottage to get some peace. This is an idyllic and very community-based village but one unforeseen problem has arisen. The house is at the end of a cul-de-sac lane and every time I nip out to do anything – post a letter, buy a pint of milk – I run into neighbours, each one requiring at least a five-minute chat. Short errands are taking an hour to complete. Without seeming to be unfriendly, how can I, on weekdays, give the message I am busy getting stuff done?

– Q.R., Lincolnshire

A. Why not take up roller-skating? In that way you will always be travelling at a speed faster than walking pace and can wave enthusiastically as you rush past shouting: ‘Sorry, I haven’t learned how to stop yet!’

Q. We have access to a large communal garden in London where, before Covid, we gave an annual party for neighbours. We would like to give another party but we are not as rich as we were. If we invite people for drinks only, which we could just afford, they are bound to be looking around for the endless trays of canapés and food tents they became used to. How can I drive home the ‘drinks only’ message without having to spell out our new financial position? – Name and address withheld

A. Communicate your invitations verbally this time. Enthuse that the drink will flow as plentifully as ever but, due to the difficulties of catering for groups when so many people have allergies or special dietary needs, you are asking people to bring their own picnics, Glyndebourne-style.

Q. I have a well-off friend with a seaside house. Every time she invites me she assigns me a task (mainly cooking, but sometimes hedge cutting, planting etc). I hate being given tasks. I fear she has a psychological quirk in that, although generous to a fault, she fears being taken advantage of. Mary, how can I keep on visiting (I never go empty handed) and avoid being given tasks? If my friend seeks some kind of recompense for her generosity I feel I prove it by being entertaining and driving eight hours to and fro.

– J.L., by email

A. Consider that your hostess does not have quite the same perception of your qualities (ability to drive long distances, being entertaining) than you do and wants you partly for your contribution to household activities. She may even believe she is entertaining you – in both senses. Try frankness. ‘I’d love to come but I’ve had such a tiring time would it be OK if I don’t help out with chores?’ Her reaction will tell you what you need to know.

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