Dear Serena

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Dear Serena,

There are a couple of people - one a colleague, one someone I've been meeting around the place for years - who always wrap up conversations by saying that classic "we must have lunch/a drink" line. So far, it's never happened. Should one follow these approaches up, or are they just meaningless things that people say to be pleasant?

Marie, Stevenage

Um, well: on the whole, they should be treated as social niceties. Whether you follow them up depends entirely on whether you genuinely like the person or not. Let's face it: this wouldn't be a dilemma if the relationship was going to be an easy one; no-one makes this sort of "should-I-shouldn't- I" hoo-hah if both sides feel wholeheartedly comfortable about the idea of spending an hour or an evening in company with the other.

There is one very easy way to find out, though. Next time they say this to you, say: "Okay. Have you got your diary on you?" If they produce said black book with a smile on their face, they want to be your friend. Similarly, anyone who wants to do the lunch/drink thing for real will cheerfully make a tentative date that can be rearranged later. If they don't have their diary, or come up with excuses about being terribly busy for the next few months, you'll know that they've only been saying it because your puppy-dog eyes keep bringing out their guilt urges. Very few people will turn down an outing with someone they like (unless they have very new children); perhaps you should get a hobby and stop worrying about these things?

Is it OK to reply to invitations or send thank-you letters by e-mail?

Deborah, Wilmslow

From your letter I can understand your reluctance to reply by hand. But no, e-mails are not acceptable unless the invitation was issued that way. Thank-yous probably are, especially as an alternative to the usual absolutely nothing most people come up with these days. Formal invitations for weddings etc should still be replied to by post, as most people just bung replies in a pile to work out how many people they've got coming. And have you ever thought of using the telephone? Most people have one these days, and they are very easy to use: just press in the appropriate number with your index finger and speak after the ringing stops.

How big does a group have to be before you stop buying rounds? And how do you initiate this closure?

Brian, Clapham

Buying rounds is one of society's clever punishments for latecomers. If you want to get out of spending your mortgage on beers-and-tonics for 15 people, make sure you're punctual: that way, you can stump up for three or four and assuage your honour, and still have enough left for a cab home at the end of the evening.

Seriously, though, the round-buying thing is a complete pest. It started as a show-of-communality thing, and has ended up as a way in which people can be pressured into drinking more than they want (the only way to get value for your outlay), and in which certain individuals can get away with sapping other people's bank balances for their own pleasure. These people should be tied down and forced to buy rounds for the whole bar.

Five is probably the maximum number for whom any individual should reasonably to have to buy drinks. Stop the round-buying procedure by draining your drink early and buying drinks for anyone who is ready: this staggers the rate at which people have empty glasses. Alternatively, drink wine, and sling in the odd bottle to compensate for your own intake. Or go to bars with table service and run a tab, making sure that old meanie in the corner doesn't sneak off first and only leave a fiver.

You recently suggested that I get therapy because I was distressed by the way my lady friend held her cutlery. I don't think this was very helpful. Furthermore, she identified herself from my letter and called off the relationship, saying that if I couldn't accept her as she was, we had no future. Why shouldn't I make helpful suggestions to make someone more socially acceptable. It's for their own good, after all. Where do I find a suitable partner? Young women these days seem so, well, boorish. What do you think of those agencies that find brides from Asia?

Geoffrey, Fulham

No, seriously, darling, get some therapy. The Western perception of Asian women as meek and obedient is balderdash. And no woman in her right mind is going to go on many dates with someone who refers to her as his "lady friend".

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