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Modern manners: Surviving the minefield

Dear Serena,

I have just received a wedding invitation that says I'm not allowed to bring my children, aged three and 18 months, to the church service. I think this is selfish and am so insulted that I'm thinking of boycotting the whole thing. My children are well behaved, and won't be any trouble, so why can't I bring them?

L., Bucks

But they will be trouble, won't they? Everyone thinks their children are immaculate and it's only other people's who let the side down. This is not how it feels when you're trying to make a solemn vow and a voice screams "WON'T!" from the back of the church. A doctor of my acquaintance takes his children everywhere, and ensures docility at formal occasions with the use of a quarter-Valium in a bottle of milk on the journey over. If you have moral qualms about this, and can't bear to leave the little monsters in the hands of a babysitter, skip the church and go to the party afterwards; most marriage services are pretty Identikit, so it's not as if you'll be missing out or anything.

What time do you stop telephoning people at? My parents had a 10-o'clock rule. Does this still apply?

Gordon, Edinburgh

Yes, if you're phoning your parents. Otherwise, you're on dodgy ground if you phone people with jobs after 11pm and freelancers after 3am, unless you're phoning new parents, in which case you should get it done before 8pm. It is also completely (and probably more) impermissible to ring normal people before 8.30 in the morning, and freelancers before 10, unless someone's died or been kidnapped. Also remember the following rule: if your call is going to be more than a minute long, check the TV schedules. If you've had a cold response when calling a girlfriend lately, it's probably because EastEnders, Coronation Street or Ally McBeal are on. Conversely, always ring when there's football on; if they miss a goal they can always watch the highlights on the news.

How long do you have to keep videos of TV programmes for people who have asked you to tape them?

Finny, South Kensington

Obviously, until the next episode of Ally McBeal.

Why is it always me that gets the loony sitting next to them on the train?

Sylvia, Oxford

Someone has to, Sylvia. Just be grateful that you're canny enough to get a seat at all. There is a really simple solution to the loony-on-train question, also applicable if you prefer to have a double seat, or even one of those nice quadruple seats with the tables, to yourself. I have occasionally reserved entire compartments by this means. It goes like this: whenever someone looks as if they are about to sit next to you, sit up, brighten visibly and give them a beaming smile of welcome. If you have the gall, say "Hello!" in as pleased a voice as you can muster, and pat the seat beside you. I guarantee that they will take fright and move several places up the carriage to sit next to the person who, probably like you, has their head buried in a book in the hope that they will seem inconspicuous. Alternatively, buy a mobile phone and spend the journey ringing people up (remember to activate the beeps on the keypad!) and say: "Hi, it's me. I'm on the train." No one will sit next to you, ever. Though you may find that a paper cup of Coca-Cola sails mysteriously through the air and lands in your lap at some point.

I once failed to finish my chocolate mousse when the woman next to me at dinner launched into a blow-by-blow description of the colonic irrigation session she had had that afternoon. Does this qualify in the "rudest thing" competition?

Martin, Cornwall

Yes. It's odd how a certain type of person seems to think that they're closer to royalty because they share some of their habits. Anyone else?

I never know with women these days. Do we hold doors open for them, give them our seats on public transport, walk on the outside of the pavement etc? Or is it insulting? A woman shouted at me for holding the door open for her the other day. I thought I was being polite.

Brian, Chelmsford

Yes, but it's a two-way thing these days. Everyone should always hold doors open for everyone else; it's a simple politeness thing. Women should refuse seats offered to them, unless they are pregnant (and remember, you can't always tell) or feeling old that day; but they should do so nicely. People who shout at other people for being polite usually have adjustment problems. Pity them; they're probably in pain after a session having their moustaches waxed.

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