Dear Serena column

MODERN MANNERS: YOUR CUT-OUT-AND-KEEP GUIDE TO SURVIVING THE MINEFIELD
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The Independent Culture
Dear Serena,

My mother is in the process of getting divorced for the third time; my father was her first husband, she was his second wife, and between them they have now notched up seven marriages. The latest marriage lasted seven years, and I have become very attached to my two stepsisters. The question is this: how do we introduce each other now our parents aren't married to each other any more? What are my stepsisters now my mother's ex-husband is no longer my stepfather?

Patsy, Oxford

Look, you didn't choose your steps any more than you chose your real siblings. As such, however close you are, they're family. And as Bob Hoskins would say, family's family whatever the circumstances; your parents may dictate which clans you join, but they can't then sever those bonds for you when they themselves leave. Carry on calling each other by the relationship you started off with.

Having recently moved to a large house in the country, we are about to employ a "couple" for the first time. What is the correct way to address them? I say the man should be called by his surname and the wife Mrs So & So. My husband says men are no longer called by their surnames - he calls his chauffeur Alan. What do you think?

Laura, Derbyshire

Ah, yes, the servant problem. I don't think that employers call employees by their surname alone any more, that particular habit tending to denote that the person so named went to the same prep schools as the namer and was usually bullied by him, and it's pretty disrespectful to refer to anyone else in that manner. Too much familiarity, however, is also dodgy until you're all absolutely certain that the whole thing is working: it's far harder to sack someone when you've been calling them Betty for several months. The best option is to call them, in the first instance, Mr and Mrs So & So; even the crustiest toffs do that these days. Over time, you should start calling each other by first names, but only by invitation. But your guests should address them by their full titles; having a total stranger call you "Susie" while they're asking you to wash their smalls can be irksome.

As an uninhibited and attention-seeking student, I often find myself going out in drag. Unfortunately, I never know which loos to use in public places.

Josh, Ipswich

Use the ladies', if you can bear the queueing. Men still get nervous peeing in front of a man in a dress, and testosterone and nerves can be an explosive mixture. Women tend to be less shockable, and our lavs have cubicles. There are generous mirrors, shelves etc, so you might pick up some make-up tips. And besides, as you enjoy the advantages of being a chick - the clothes, the shoes, the handbags - you might as well go whole hog and discover the joy of the communal female preening experience.

Surrounded as I am by women in my personal and professional lives, I rely on your sensitive responses for guidance in the problems I face. But while Nick was standing in during your exhaustion treatment in Arizona, I experienced a greater understanding of my own problems than I do when I read you. Is this because we are male and you are female? Is there an actual difference in the perception of relationships between males and females?

Mo, London NW2

Yes. You've hit the nail on the head. When approaching inter-gender relations, remember one simple maxim: all men think women are mad, all women think men are children. So just go and clean your room before I have a nervous bloody breakdown, OK?

Knotty problems with the world today? Send them to The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL where they will be treated with the customary sympathy

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