Mother-in-law's manners e-mail: Right or wrong?

Manners montage

For any bride (or groom) to-be, one of the most nerve-racking aspects of entering married life is winning over the future in-laws.

So when one young woman, Heidi Withers, returned from visiting hers in Devon, it's unlikely she welcomed the detailed critique of her manners that dropped into her inbox from her fiance's stepmother, Carolyn Bourne.

Having forwarded the e-mail that described her behaviour as "staggering in its uncouthness and lack of grace" to her friends, it then went viral, attracting attention from around the world.

Here are some examples from the missive, followed by some expert opinions.

"When a guest in another's house, you do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early - you fall in line with house norms."

Staying at someone else's home can be a minefield of dilemmas for many a guest but choosing what time to appear at the breakfast table is one that can be easily cleared up the night before, says etiquette expert Liz Brewer.

"Even when staying at the grandest houses, the hostess will say breakfast is at X o'clock and we'd like you to join us then. If you are very tired, it is acceptable to maybe ask 'would you mind if I have a lie in?'. But that has to be established beforehand.

"When staying with the in-laws you'd have thought you would have wanted to make a good impression."

"No-one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity-style behaviour."

Image caption Madonna and Guy Ritchie tied the knot at Skibo Castle in the Scottish Highlands

For many couples - and brides in particular - their big day is something they have spent years imagining and planning. With this in mind, it's no surprise that the choice of venue tends to be somewhere special, like a castle.

Andrea Ventress of Wedding magazine says just because you don't happen to live in one doesn't mean you have to rule it out, particularly as more and more stately homes and castles have got wedding licences in the last decade.

"It's a way that a lot of these big places stay open.

"Yes, someone like Madonna got married in a castle but a lot of very normal, real-life couples can get married in these settings. There are lots of castles around the UK where you could absolutely afford to get married. Everyone has the right to a fairytale wedding. "

"You do not take additional helpings without being invited to by your host."

The suggestion that Miss Withers helped herself to seconds before being offered more by her hostess is seen as a definite no-no. Unless, that is, you are considerate enough to look out for your fellow diners first, says etiquette expert William Hanson.

"If there are communal dishes, and wine, on the table the polite thing to do is turn to the person next to you, offer them some more sprouts, wine or whatever it is and then help yourself."

"I understand your parents are unable to contribute very much towards the cost of your wedding. (There is nothing wrong with that except that convention is such that one might presume they would have saved for their daughters' marriages.) If this is the case, it would be most ladylike and gracious to lower your sights and have a modest wedding."

By discussing money Mrs Bourne is mentioning the very British unmentionable. And on the subject of a bride's parents paying for a wedding, it is outdated, says Miranda Eason, editor of You & Your Wedding and Cosmopolitan Bride.

"Our research [21st Century bride online survey 2010] shows that only around 10% of couples rely on their parents for funds. Forty-two per cent of weddings are an all-in-it-together venture with everyone contributing - the couple and both sets of parents. But nearly half (47%) of couples now finance the entire celebration themselves, largely because they are older than when their parents married - the average age for a bride is 29 - and are more financially independent.

"They want to plan the wedding they want without feeling obliged to give into pressure from the parents paying the bills."

"When you are a guest in another's house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat - unless you are positively allergic to something."

In a world full of food awareness and choice, people are increasingly picky about what they eat. But when sitting at someone else's table in their home, Jill Harbord, the headmistress in ITV's Ladette to Lady, says suggesting a dislike for something that has been prepared for you is unacceptable.

"You certainly don't go into the house and say I hate X. That would be very bad manners. If you are allergic to something, you don't say it as you arrive. You should give prior warning before your visit. It's about having respect for your hostess."

"I suggest you take some guidance from experts with utmost haste. There are plenty of finishing schools around."

Image caption Is there still a need for finishing schools?

For William Hanson, this was the comment that "tipped it completely over the mark". Mrs Bourne's decision to comment on her future stepdaughter-in-law-to-be's manners is one that could call into question her own manners.

"Whilst she's technically correct on all the points she made she was rude herself handling it in the way she did. She could maybe have gone for the softly, softly approach, or just picked up on a couple of things that particularly bugged her."

Her decision to put her thoughts down in an e-mail could itself be described as a social faux pas. In person, it would have been easier to use tone to lighten the conversation.

"What she needed to do was address this one-to-one, in a friendly tone, not antagonising or dictating to her. She should have given an explanation why.

"Where there is a rule there is always a plausible reason and the reason is normally common sense."

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