Impeccable Table Manners

Ben and Samantha

Sometimes, when a date is going really badly, you have to stare right into the soul of it to get through. You have to think – as you sit there, or back away from them, or feel their clammy fingers inch up the back of your crop top – this is definitely going to get worse and the only way you can cope is to realise how much fun it will be in, say, an hour, when it’s over, and you’re on the bus home, clawing at your own skin and dreaming of the swarfega shower you’re going to have as soon as you get there.

That said, you can’t let them get away with it. You can’t just allow a bad date to happen to you. You have to make them see it too. The best ways: awkward silences; an exaggerated removal of their hand  from yours; eye-rolling at an imaginary audience like you’re both in a farce in community theatre; the invention of a non-existent deadline, or dog to walk, or ailing mother. In extreme circumstances, a confession you have syphilis.  Obviously you don’t want someone to feel like shit if they’re merely just a bit boring and you’re not into it, but if someone is actively giving you the worst night of your life, almost wilfully, you can’t let them go home in ignorance.

Unless you’re in the Guardian Blind Date column. That’s exactly what you have to do, because this person who was once, blissfully, a stranger, will soon be scoring you like you’re a ploughman’s lunch in a country pub and they’re on TripAdvisor.

Awarding each other three stars for hygiene and two for ambience this week are Ben, 26, an advertising product manager (no idea, let’s never find out) and 21-year-old actor Samantha. Advertising. Acting. In their 20s. I think it’s safe to say we have two people who are very probably slightly too loud at family gatherings and would, if necessary, throw themselves down a short, wide flight of stairs for attention at your wedding reception. Click on the pic for the full date.

OK, my knives are sharp and the turkeys look ready, let’s go.

Have you considered trying the first week of the Edinburgh Fringe? Cheap tickets and the comedians may let you throw fruit at them if you ask.

I didn’t have time to check my watch – that’s how speedy that friendzoning, damage limitation and movement of expectations was. As one guy told me on a date when I said I was on Guardian Soulmates to look for new mates: “I’m not here to make fucking FRIENDS. Join a running club if you want to make friends. I’m here to…” Anyway, you get the idea.

Samantha is allowing us to stare right into the eye of this dating tornado here, she has spoilered us right off the jump, and yet we feel compelled to carry on because we want to see just how catastrophic it all gets.

Haha, why do people say this? “Ooh I like your nose ring.” I had my nose pierced in my 20s – which caused a sensation when I lived in Belgium for a year but that’s a story for another time – and I used to get the odd person leaning in to investigate. Their eyes would widen like they were trying to decide which Quality Street to pick out of the tin, and then they’d tell me how they love “piercings”, like I was absolutely covered in them and not just a dreary cleanshirt trying to look exciting. “Wow a nose ring” is usually the nascent stirrings of kinkiness in the very square. In 20 years’ time it may well develop into an interest in bondage or swinging, but will more than likely plateau with leaving one sock on while they get sucked off in a twin room of a Premier Inn while at a work conference.

Sweet. The emotional fire extinguisher aimed at many a smouldering heart. It’s always a marker for something else. Sweet is like the nicest compliment you can dig out for someone that can’t possibly give them any idea you are sexually interested in them. Any compliment that could equally apply to a baby, a grandparent or a gentle comedy on Radio 4 can never be misconstrued as a come-on.

Imagine sitting behind this conversation on the bus. What do you think would leave you soonest? Your sense of humour? Your dignity? Your will to live?

Yes. You see? How many time have I said this over the years? How many times have I implored you to keep it light – even talk about boxsets and where you get your towels if you have to. The thing is that talking about politics doesn’t just risk betraying your bad opinions – you’re in danger of revealing you don’t think anything. The depressing truth about 2017 is that even your mum’s dog is politicised (Corbyn supporter, but very annoyed with who he chooses to be friends with) and you’re more likely than ever to get into a political argument with your barista while you’re ordering your flat white (because you are forever “super cool in 2003” in your heart). We are living in inescapably political times.

It’s OK to be not sure someone is right, it’s OK to feel you “don’t know enough about it to make an informed decision”, perhaps it’s even OK to believe that Melania Trump is “fabuleux and serving Anna Nicole realness” or whatever (it isn’t) but now, in the age of Teen Vogue as political agitator, it is not OK not to care. Even when you’re 26. Especially, some might say.

Ah, shuddup, the pair of you, let’s get back to the meat on this bone.

I think it’s fine to still feel sad for Ben at this point. You know, he’s probably hypnotised by Samantha’s nose ring or whatever, so can’t quite see how badly this is going – and don’t forget he’s actually on the date and so hasn’t read to the end yet. And maybe Samantha is one of those experts at putting a brave face on it. She is an actor after all. Maybe she should have a night off.  I used to do this. And then I’d get home from a garbage fire of a three-hour date to a text saying “can’t wait to do it again!!!” and I’d be, like, shit.

I mean. Ouch. Well. It’s a funny answer but also, ouuuuuuuuch. He liked her “chat”, while she chartered a plane to travel to the farthest place she could get from giving him a meaningful compliment.

Actors. OK. I have to be careful here because one of my very close friends is an actor and I love them dearly and they are amazing. But when you get a bunch of actors together – oh my God. I must stress here I am not talking about ANY incidents with my own friend but I can tell you: Ben wouldn’t have loads in common with Samantha’s friends because they would make fucking SURE of it.

Like waiters, politicians and estate agents, many groups of actors pride themselves on being utterly impenetrable. I dated an actor briefly back in the day and bloody hell his close coterie of board-treaders did the absolute MOST to make sure I fit in the least. They were pretty, and funny, and friendly, and either marvellously messed-up or incredibly dull and disciplined, but you can never be  any of those things, or one of them, and you will never understand them. A good thing to do is tell them that you acted a bit at school and watch any tiny scrap of fondness they had for you totally disintegrate.

CHATTY, like a child who has just seen the word “sex” written down for the first time.
FUNNY, how some feelings you just can’t deny
And you can’t move on even though you try
Ain’t it strange when you’re feeling things
You shouldn’t feel
Oh, I wish this could be real.

CREATIVE, like an actor, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

FUNNY, like that lyric-based J-Lo joke up there.
SWEET, like candy floss bought from a stall at the Friend Zone’s annual fun day.
SMART, like a cheap suit from a distance.

Look, I know it’s all relative and it isn’t a competition and we’re all entitled to our own feelings, but when a 26-year-old is trying to position himself as some kind of geriatric somehow still tuned into popular culture because he deigned to go on a date with someone a full five years his junior, I just want to smash stuff up. Like, all the stuff. And then when I’m done smashing it up, I want to collect all the shards, smithereens and splinters and I want to pour them into that person’s margarita.

This immediate assumption that ageing is a one-way trip to irrelevance – that we are all complicit in, we knew our killer – is so boring and it is massively untrue. Advancing in years is neither an excuse for tuning out and nor is it compulsory to do so.

It’s like all those gay men on messageboards who can’t understand why Madonna still makes dance music or wants to collaborate with young or popular artists and producers. They assume it is Madge up to her usual vampiric tricks, appropriating everything in reach of her supposedly arthritic, glove-clad fingers, desperate to cling onto youth and stay cool, and be admired by teenagers. They never think for a minute that perhaps she might genuinely still be interested in new music, that these genres and artists excite her, that she still wants to feel a thudding bass pound to the very core of her soul. We have an unhealthy obsession with the idea that everything that is new, and different, and exciting, should only be for the young, that, after a while, older people should pick an era and stick to it and never open their mind and heart to anything new. Staying true to yourself as you age is hard enough; I massively reject the expectation of any generation – below me or above – that I should be acting a certain way or stop living in the here and now merely because it suits them.

Acting your age is just that: acting. Why not just be yourself and not a number? Seriously, free yourself from that sodding birth certificate.

God, Samantha wants to avoid these questions so badly. I wonder how long it took her to get back to the Guardian – they email you the next day, you know. I bet she made them wait a week and deleted some real juicy ones before sending this version.


It is tricky on a date knowing when to go in for the kiss because there’s always the awkwardness, the positioning, the fact they might be shy, or may not want to snog in a public place. There is all of that. But before there is all of that, there is the mutual understanding that a kiss is going to take place. There are the glances from eye to mouth, they move in closer, they pretend to need to hear what you’re saying so badly that they must lean right in and put their ear near your mouth, they will start becoming more tactile. If there is none of that, you need to tastefully withdraw and accept it is not going to be happening that night.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ask at al, but usually circumstance will lead you into the kiss, not a formal request. I have asked a couple of times, but only in situations where it has nearly happened so many times that only our mutual propriety or shyness were keeping us apart, or the signals were so strong that the only thing we could logically do next was kiss. And only when I was absolutely sure they their yes would be sincere. But if both of you are up for it and in possession of at least a little confidence, you shouldn’t need to ask. It puts the other person in a horrible position if they’re not interested – once asked, they usually they want to say no. More often than not, they don’t. Nobody wants to be in either situation then, surely. Signals can be easy to misread, yes, but often the best way – especially on a first date – is to ignore them entirely and wait for a follow-up date to confirm them for you.

It is very difficult to get it right, and everybody has their own boundaries, but you are better off missing your chance entirely and going home wanting than taking things to a level that makes you get it absolutely wrong.


She didn’t want to do it. She should’ve said no, but we live in a world where men have to be pandered to, or “let down gently” rather than told a flat no, because otherwise they’ll create a scene – a phenomenon that suddenly becomes the fault of the person saying no. I am not suggesting for a moment that Ben is one of those men, but experience has probably shown Samantha that most men are, so she may have thought it was easier to just go along with it.

I don’t like this world.

You definitely didn’t, Ben. It’s all too easy to turn a party into a circus.

That Ben scored Samantha an 8, even after a kiss, suggests he knew she wasn’t into it. Then, mate, why are you kissing her? It’s not like actual magic – she isn’t Princess Aurora.

Samantha’s 7 is a 1.

Photograph: James Drew Turner; Alicia Canter, both for the Guardian

Note: Impeccable will be back in September. The first edition of my mailout, The Truth About Everything*, has already gone out, but if you’d like the next one, you can sign up here. It’s just a bit of my writing that you won’t find anywhere else, every now and again. No news or tastemaker stuff – lots of other people do that much better than I would.

Disclaimer: The comments I make are meant to be playful and humorous and are based on the answers the Guardian chooses to publish, which may have been changed by a journalist to make for better copy.  Get in touch if you want to give us your side of the story. But don’t kiss people who aren’t into you. It’s not cool. And if someone asks, say no. Let’s make that normal behaviour.


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  1. Enjoyed. The idea of a 26 year old feeling ancient across from a 21 year old made me laugh, in a dismal way. It’s loony. Both of these youngters seemed like bores though. He has some dreary job title, she’s an “actor”, which I take to mean, “unemployed”.
    Your illustrations with gifs and pictures mean the world to me- they are always funny and astute and spot on. Cheers.

  2. When he described her manners as “impeccable”, I thought it might have been a knowing wink to this blog – but reading the rest I don’t think it was and that made me bummed

  3. THANK GOD you covered this one, I had half my fist stuffed into my mouth in horror by the end. And that Bowie gif is my go-to for so many situatuons.

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