Dear Serena: Modern Manners - Your cut-out-and-keep guide to surviving the minefield

Dear Serena,

We are finding it difficult to cope with two children and two jobs and we're thinking of taking on an au pair girl. At least, my husband is. You hear so many stories about men running off with the au pair, and I don't want to have my family destroyed in the same way. How can I vet potential au pairs to make sure that I don't allow some man-stealing hussy into my home?

Rebecca, Pimlico

What are you saying? That you don't trust your husband, or that you don't trust yourself? Your marriage is probably at greater risk from the women your husband encounters at work and associates with social drinking and moments of power, than it is from someone he will generally associate with nappies and washing-up. That said, you can't vet au pairs unless they're already in the country, but if you want to be sure, I would advise hiring someone from a former Communist country. One of the first things that went under the Communist regimes were those bourgeois affectations, grace and pretty manners, and there is still some way to go before those who grew up in these circumstances re-adopt them. I would recommend the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary as good sources. Avoid girls from war zones, as they are often understandably desperate and will do a lot to ensure their future in a safer environment. Also avoid Latinas, as before you know it they'll be too busy earning extra pounds, setting up salsa classes in local bars, to look after the children.

Further to Bob's letter of last week, I would dearly love to have a stag night, but when I think about my male friends, I realise that I don't really like that many of them. Should I just forget about it?

Stanley, Seagrove

Like them? Who said anything about liking the people on your stag night? Stag nights are about drinking, ritual humiliation and shaving foam, aren't they? You don't need to like someone to burst a condom filled with water over his head.

I recently broke my shoulder falling off a horse. I work in one of those rather self-consciously classless industries, and am worried that my colleagues are beginning to suspect that I'm in fact rather posh and judge me by it (I dropped the first half of my double-barrelled name for the same reason some years ago). How do I pull the wool back over their eyes?

Isabel, Shepherd's Bush

If anyone asks, say "Naah, it wasn't riding a horse. I was doing my circus skills class". They might thereafter think you're a lesbian, but that shouldn't be a problem.

What do you do if you hate the art at a private view?

Clarissa, Cambridge

Oh, come on, Clarissa; you may not like it, but saying so on the artist's big night would be roughly equivalent to criticising your hostess's dress sense at her birthday party. If you can't bring yourself to say something nice, say what a wonderful time you've had at the party (which will in itself probably be a lie, if the lukewarm chardonnay I've had to drink over the years is anything to go by). If you find yourself challenged directly, grit your teeth and say what a shame it is that they're out of your price range.

Our insurance company says that we must have alarms on the house in order to qualify for cover. What should we do about them when we have overnight guests? Should we set them and risk a false alarm, or leave them unset and invalidate our cover?

Stephen, Cumbria

You can leave an alarm on in the house only if you have en-suite bathrooms. Leave some bacon sandwiches in a covered dish on the dressing-table, as there is nothing that gives you a greater hunger in the night than knowing that you cannot leave your room. Why not get a pit-bull terrier? Great protection against burglars, and guaranteed to keep the most insomniac guests safely tucked up in their rooms till morning.

I am in the entertainment industry, and am about to give birth to my first child, and my fiancee and I still can't agree on names. The problem is that neither of us seems to have very much imagination when it comes to names, and we are afraid that our child won't stand out. Help!

V, Wilmslow

How about something exotic, like Kuala Lumpur Sugar, Ogodougou Feng Shui, or Billabong Toesock? Or something more homely, like Accrington Stanley? If you really want a child to stand out in the entertainment world, call it John.

What precautions are you taking against the Millennium Bug?

James, Whitehall

None; as you can see, I write with a pen.

Knotty problems with the world today? Write to `The Independent', 18th Floor, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, where they will be treated with the customary sympathy

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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