Modern manners: Your cut out and keep guidde to surviving the field

Dear Serena,

A colleague recently went on a three-week holiday. When she came back, she looked completely different - as though the wind had changed while she was hearing some juicy gossip - and has remained that way. She claimed that the holiday was spent at a spa, but we are all convinced that she has had plastic surgery. Does it fall within the code of good manners to ask someone if they've had a face job, or do we have to keep quiet?

Jonathan, Brixton

People who spend money on plastic surgery are convinced that no one can tell they've had it done, much as toupee-wearers believe that no one can tell. It is, therefore, very spiteful to shatter their illusions. Unless you really dislike your colleague, it's kinder to keep quiet. If, however, you only dislike her a bit, you can have some fun by expressing concern for her well-being at regular intervals. "You're looking terribly tired. Are you all right?" is a classic phrase guaranteed to raise a laugh.

I have been found guilty of white-collar fraud and expect to be sent away for roughly three months when I go for my sentencing hearing at the beginning of March. My problem is that I've not been able to bring myself to tell my ageing parents. How can I keep the news from them while I serve my sentence?

Charlie, Northants

Look, Charlie: at some point you are going to have to face up to the reality of your situation. If you pretend that your crime and its uncovering have never existed and that you are merely on a sabbatical in inferior accommodation, the likelihood is that you will fail to extract any lessons from the situation and will think that you can get away with further infractions of the law. Which, as you are obviously not a very competent criminal, will likely result in further jail sentences of greater severity. And then what will your elderly parents think? Instead of spending the time trying to work out how not to get caught for a crime you've already been caught for, you should perhaps spend it trying to work out a means of breaking the news to your parents with as little hysteria as possible. Remember: a life lived in fantasy is a life unlived.

I am getting married soon, and am worried that there is some obligation to have a stag night as part of the celebrations. I really don't want one, but feel under some pressure from my acquaintances to agree to having one. Do I have to?

Bob, Catterick

No. If they step the pressure up too hard, agree to have one on condition that your fiancee and all wives and girlfriends are included in the party. They will stop pestering you immediately.

My stepsister is an awkward cuss, and can usually be found standing on the sidelines making sarcastic remarks. At our parents' wedding, for instance, when I tried to break the ice in the registry office by kissing the members of my new family, she reacted by starting backwards and saying "Ooh, very sophisticated" in a tone that implied that I was being pretentious. I have reached my wits' end with her, having my invitations and attempts to be nice to her constantly snubbed - but we are linked now, whether we like it or not. How should I behave towards her in future?

Lorna, Newbury

Stepchildren often make the mistake of thinking that they should have relationships with the parents' spouses' offspring. This is not the case. Just because one of your parents married one of theirs doesn't mean that you have to give the silly bitch the time of day if she insists on making things unpleasant, though you should try to keep your feelings to yourself around the parents in question. Presumably, as you are adults, you don't have to see her more than once or twice a year at most. From now on, kiss anyone who is nice to you and shake your stepsister loosely by the hand while standing as close to arm's length as you can get. Rude people should be made allowances for when it's obviously a one-off occurrence; if it's habitual, they should be ignored until they can grow up and be civilised.

I've been publicising my pop career with liberal press releases about my drink and drugs hell over the last few years, but it's getting to be a bit of a strain to keep up. How do I alter my image so I can live a cleaner, more professional life?

R., Notting Hill

If you want to live cleanly, retire. Otherwise, you're going to have to jolly well accept the demands as well as the perks of the rock'n'roll lifestyle. Nobody wants a pop star who tells anecdotes about their health and fitness regime. If you have doubts about this, just keep a picture of Cliff Richard pasted up by your bathroom mirror as a horrible example of what can happen to an entertainer who goes to the bad.

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

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