Saturday, 15 January 2011

Starter for ten: how old are you?

I have a question: since when has it become acceptable to ask a woman her age? Is it just me or is everyone else suffering from this unpleasant change in manners rules? For all your sakes, I hope it’s not universal; that I’m the only one undergoing this new form of intrusive rudeness.

Either way I have personally been suffering greatly. Let me explain. I must look younger than I am. That’s not me being big-headed; it’s based on the fact that the whole world can’t stop asking me for ID. The same supermarket I’ve frequented at least once a week for last half a decade won’t sell me a drop of the hard stuff without first seeing my driving licence.

It doesn’t matter if I’m buying a bottle of vodka and a jumbo packet of condoms or a hundred quid’s worth of tinned tuna, loo roll, satsumas and one small bottle of beer: I’ll be asked either way. Whether in a work suit or super casual in tracky bums and one of those body warmer thingies that fashionistas attempt to justify by calling a ‘gillet’, I don't seem to be able to pass for 18.

I firmly believe that height has a bearing on this misconception. At 5’4”, I’m two inches shorter than the average British woman and, even though not tiny by any stretch of the imagination, a bit littler than many others. A friend of mine who is 5’11” bitterly complains about never being asked to prove her age.

“Come to the pub with me,” I promised. “You’ll be asked then.” And so we were, by a very young person only just old enough to work there. My friend beamed with pride as she handed her ID over for inspection. “What a compliment!” she gushed. Teenage barmaid then thoroughly ruined the moment for all concerned by letting slip the damning remark: “Oh my god, you’re old!” We were 24 at the time.

“They’ll say something along the lines of: ‘You really do look younger!’ Thanks, but I still think you’re a tool.”

That particularly soul-crushing incident aside, now I find the thing about looking younger than one’s years is that your conversation sounds odd to others. People can’t understand why I’m banging on about spending my Saturday nights on the sofa under a blanket handmade by aunt, sipping wine and watching Jonathan Creek on DVD (I have the complete box set) instead of talking about the wild and crazy parties I go to. And this confusion manifests itself in a question to clarify my exact age.

Of course I smile, in a gentle yet patronising way, and reply: “It’s rude to ask a woman her age.” Once upon a time that would have been the end of the matter, but not any more. Now the blighters invariably come back with things like “but seriously, how old are you?” Which forces me to snap back with “but seriously, it’s rude to ask.”

However, I often give in and reveal the much discussed number for no other reason than I want to conversation to move on and it’s clear that it’s not going to without some form of personal revelation on my part. At times like this I feel like defiantly asking: “Is there anything else you’d like to know? My bra size, maybe? Or my income last year as per my tax return?”

Last time I checked with my etiquette guru, the rule was that a lady never mentions figures explicitly. It’s fine to say dinner was expensive, but not exactly how much you paid. Similarly there’s nothing wrong with saying you’ve dropped a dress size but it’s less tasteful to specify which one you now wear. References and allusions are permissible but tricky to get quite right. If you find yourself ending a sentence with ‘if you know what I mean” then you can be confident you’ve got it wrong.

Coming out and demanding an actual number is never, ever acceptable. Furthermore, then refusing to let the matter drop until you’ve got it, is nothing short of conversational bullying. Most of the time the social nemesis is gracious enough to be a good winner once they’ve wrestled me into age disclosure submission.

They’ll say something along the lines of: “You really do look younger!” Thanks, but I still think you’re a tool. Before you berate me for being ungrateful, I do accept it’s a compliment of sorts. Maybe only because I’ve been brainwashed by countless Sainsbury’s cashiers into believing that and now blindly accept it as fact.

Don’t worry, I’m not smug about it. My lifestyle of hard drinking and worrying will soon make deep inroads into youthful appearance and I can then enjoy watching people awkwardly trying not to tell me I look older than I am. Read more by Rosie.