Did Queen Elizabeth’s Lady-In-Waiting Show Bad Manners?
A Personal Perspective: On wickedness and vulgarity.
Posted December 20, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
Susan Hussey, who served for several decades as a courtier in the House of Windsor, landed in hot water recently over an exchange she’d had with a charity founder named Ngozi Fulani at a reception. The purpose of the event was to raise funds to combat violence against women and girls.
Over the course of the exchange, Hussey repeatedly asked Fulani–who was born and raised in the UK–where Fulani was really from. Hussey was apparently unwilling to accept “I was born and raised in the UK” for an answer. According to a transcript of the exchange released later by Fulani and not challenged or corrected by either Hussey or a spokesperson for Buckingham Palace, the conversation between the two went like this:
Hussey: “Where are you from?”
Fulani: “Sistah Space.”
Hussey: “No, where do you come from?
Fulani: “We’re based in Hackney.”
Hussey: “No, what part of Africa are you from?”
Fulani: “I don’t know. They didn’t leave any records.”
Hussey: “Well, you must know where you’re from. I spent time in France. Where are you from?”
Fulani: “Here, UK.”
Hussey: “No, but what Nationality are you?”
Fulani: “I am born here and am British.”
Hussey: “No, but where do you really come from? Where do your people come from?”
Fulani: “‘My people,’ lady, what is this?”
Hussey: “Oh, I can see I am going to have a challenge getting you to say where you’re from. When did you first come here?”
Fulani: “Lady! I am a British national, my parents came here in the ’50s when….”
Hussey: “Oh, I knew we’d get there in the end. You’re Caribbean!”
Fulani: “No, lady, I am of African heritage, Caribbean descent, and British nationality.”
Hussey: “Oh, so you’re from….”
The case generated heated public discussion, and Hussey resigned in the aftermath. Public opinion was sharply divided between those who saw Hussey’s comments as racist and those who saw Hussey’s resignation as a regrettable victory of wokism.
For my part, I was struck by two things: first, Hussey’s apparent lack of manners; and second, the fact that this aspect of the case went mostly overlooked. What do I have in mind?
Simply this: When you ask someone you have never met before a personal question, you should make do with the answer you get even if that answer doesn’t satisfy your curiosity. Every person with a modicum of tact understands this. The Hussey kerfuffle reminded me of a case in which a friend of mine whose children do not look like her had a stranger ask, “Are these your children?” “Yes,” she said. The stranger went on, “Are they really your children?” “Yes.” “I mean, are you actually their mother?”
Apparently, the other was curious about why the children did not look like my friend, but of course, my friend had no duty to satisfy the stranger’s curiosity. Neither did Fulani have an obligation to indulge Hussey and to satisfy Hussey's curiosity.
In this connection, I confess to being puzzled by some of the comments Hussey’s defenders have made. Some are suggesting that Fulani was impolite. For instance, in a popular public Facebook post, British journalist Raheem Kassam writes: “There’s only one person being obtuse and rude in this exchange and it’s not Lady Susan Hussey.” Others—see, comments on the same thread—claim that Fulani was pretending not to understand Hussey’s question, and that they themselves would have been forthcoming and proudly responded to a query about their own national and ethnic background. The implication is that Fulani was ashamed of her heritage.
I find these suggestions puzzling, because the question is not whether or not Fulani understood what Hussey was asking. And the fact that there may be other people who would proudly discuss their lineage changes nothing. To see why, let’s go back to my friend. She understood what the stranger was driving at, of course, and tried to communicate, “I don’t wish to explain this. Please, stop asking.” That the stranger was either lumpish or tactless or both was on the stranger. Something similar is true in the case at hand.
As for the second point, I have little doubt that there are people who would answer a stranger’s question in my friend’s case and say, e.g., “The children look like my husband, but I am their biological mother” or “They are my adoptive children” etc. But so what? If those people want to explain, they can go ahead. What they cannot do is insist that others do the same. You may, for that matter, not mind it if neighbors peeked into your apartment through the window when you are not fully dressed, because you are proud of your body in underwear, but that doesn’t mean other people should not lower their shades. No one has a duty to satisfy another’s curiosity by revealing personal information they'd rather not reveal. Just why they prefer to remain reticent is no one else's business.
How could Hussey possibly not know this? One might have expected more of a professional courtier. (She has, according to Google, served in the House of Windsor for 60 years.)
My guess is that Hussey did know this. It is difficult to imagine that she would have had anything like the Fulani exchange with a royal family member. What she apparently did not know was that the circle of people whose privacy must be respected includes all strangers. She seems to have thought that Fulani owed it to her to satisfy her curiosity. (I suspect also that Hussey's defenders implicitly accept this assumption.)
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Some have pointed to Hussey’s age as an excuse in this case. When it comes to the issue I have in mind, age seems to be an incriminating factor, rather. It is true that none of us have control over early circumstances. In all likelihood, Hussey was never taught that a properly socialized person shows restraint when it comes to inquiring about the private lives of others in general, not only others of perceived higher status. If so, that’s regrettable but not really Hussey’s fault. However, Hussey has had more than a few decades to make up for possible deficiencies in early upbringing.
It is, I think, important to emphasize that to contemporary sensibilities, Hussey’s behavior at the event in question appears tasteless and unrefined. We need not pay Hussey the peculiar compliment of labeling her behavior morally bad. It was, in the first instance, crude. This is important, because not everyone has it as their goal to be virtuous. I am, however, yet to meet a person who does not mind being seen as an ill-mannered boor.
I am reminded, in this connection, of something Oscar Wilde says about war: as long as we continue to see war as wicked, Wilde says, it will retain its attraction. When we come to see it as vulgar, it will cease to be popular. As with war, so with persistent questions about a stranger’s background or other private details: as long as we continue to see badgering others in such circumstances as bad, it will continue. If we see it as tactless, it is likely to stop. The interpretation in terms of lack of style would be accurate in both cases: War really is quite vulgar, whatever else it may be; and Susan Hussey showed an embarrassing lack of manners.