Modern manners: Surviving the minefield, or how to eat your P's and Q's

Dear Serena,

How do you refuse drugs without causing offence?

Poppy, Bristol

Say "No, thanks". It works wonders. If you don't take drugs but are scared of people thinking you're not cool, you're either still in your teens or have never matured. Get a life.

What is it with women? They go on about equality, but it never extends as far as their purses. I get stung constantly for dinners, theatre tickets, cab fares. I'm an actor, and consequently don't earn much. But whenever I take a woman out to dinner, and the bill looks imminent, she will slip off to the loo and stay there until it's settled. It's not as if you even get much of a thank you.

I've occasionally discussed this with female friends, and they divide into two camps. Some say that getting ready for dates costs so much in clothes, make-up, hairdos and whatever, that it's only fair that the man should pay. One woman, after spending two hours going on about her family and their island in Greece, announced that men got the privilege of her company for the evening, which was well worth the price of a dinner. My best female friend, meanwhile, just says I'm stupid. Am I being duped, or am I just mean?

Increasingly Embittered, Belsize Park

Yes you are, and no, you're not. Having spent most of my life stumping up for men who couldn't pay their gas bill, you have my sympathy. However, the who-pays question is complicated by the fact that for every time a man goes out with a woman who earns more than him, there are 10 instances when the role is reversed. Women still earn less than men as a rule, and it well behoves the richer sex to act with a tad of generosity.

Having said that, most women wear the same dress more than once, and a pot of make-up lasts months. Women who don't attempt to pay their way are undermining every advance their sisters have made over the past 70 years, and deserve to stay home every night until they develop some decency. Wait 'til they come back from the loo, put your card down once they've settled and say "that's pounds 30 each". If she protests or sulks, insist anyway: it's not like you're going to be repeating the date in a hurry. Oh, and don't say "let me take you out to dinner" when you mean "let's go out and eat together".

Then again, I get a feeling that you're not being entirely honest. Are you by any chance, dating rich women in the hope of scoring a permanent private income? Rich people, especially the women, are different from the rest of us; they're spoiled stupid by the fact that the world is full of social climbers and fortune hunters who are prepared to lay out for their every need in the hope of winning the big prize. If you are one of those, you're going to have to treat the outlay as an investment. Alternatively, don't be such a calculating scumbag: try looking for a woman you actually get on with, and try to make sure she also works for a living. Have you thought of dating the friend who thinks you're stupid? She obviously understands you extremely well.

I've got a brilliant record collection: everybody says so. Most of my friends have crap record collections. Why do they seem to get so cross when I bring CDs and compilations to their parties? I'm only trying to be helpful.


Canterbury, Kent

They get cross because you're insulting them. Would you bring Twister to a cocktail party and insist that everyone plays it? Would you bring your lentil bake to dinner as an alternative to the boeuf bourgignon? People's record collections are as personal as their interior decor; they get really hacked off if you walk into their living-room and say "this room could be really lovely", and they don't like it if you suggest that their music isn't good enough for their party.

So what if you have to spend a night miming to Celine Dion albums? You could find a whole new hobby. At the outside, you are allowed to bring one record that you really, really like, and by that I don't mean the four-hour Ministry of Sound Ibiza Anthems vol 43. And try talking to people instead of hogging the CD player.

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