Ask Martha: How do I get my colleague to change her slovenly ways?

Got a social dilemma? Martha Arthur has the answer...

Q. The girl I sit next to at work has a really messy desk, which sometimes spills over on to my own. I've tried making some pointed jokes about it, to no avail. How best to get her to change her slovenly ways? Keith, Ontario

A. Every office has a tyrant of fuss. Who is it in your office, Keith? If you don't know, there's a good chance it could be you. Next you will be telling me that she doesn't always clean her teeth in the mornings, or that she has semi-legible handwriting. So what? Let her make her own mistakes. Butt out. The only action required is that you establish firm boundaries between your desks. Do whatever you have to: push, shove, build a little Berlin Wall of books along your territory and have a pencil pot stand in for Checkpoint Charlie. Crass analogy, sorry. But my point is this: as long as the divide is clear, what happens on her side is none of your beeswax. To quote folklore and Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall": "Good fences make good neighbours".

Q. Is there a place for coasters in the modern world? Isaac, by email

A. As long as there is a place in the modern world for beautiful and vulnerable table-tops, there is a place for coasters. But not novelty ones, please, nor free cardboard ones from pubs, nor those tiny fiddly suburban round ones, nor – unless you are either very old and sincere or very young and ironic — scenes of the pump room at Bath.

Q. Are kisses on work emails acceptable? Anon

A. If you are fond of the colleague you are mailing, kisses are acceptable. If you can't stand the sight of them, kisses are essential. Machiavellian, moi?

Q. After a weekend away I sent a (lovely) thank-you card to my friends, but they haven't mentioned it. Can I ask if they got it, or does it look like I'm fishing for a thank you for my thank you? Alice, Clapham

A. My dear Alice. What a sweet, polite worry-wart you are. Do feel free to ask them, but it should be casually, and with emphasis on your concern about the postal system. Its vagaries must provide cover for your naked hunger for thanks. Was the envelope tissue-lined? And the hand-cut card so expensive it still had lumps and flecks in it? Lovely indeed. But strictly speaking, Alice, if you wanted acknowledgement of receipt, you should have sent something worth acknowledging. Like booze.

Email your social dilemmas to Martha at askmartha@independent.co.uk

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