"Visitors, like fish, go off after three days." Only in England could such an expression turn into an adage. Australians, Americans - they have a much more relaxed attitude to visiting, and being visited.

So Bella's problem sounds as much one of culture as personality, but it's difficult to explain to guests that your desire for privacy and your unwillingness to give till the pips squeak are really much more connected to your Englishness than how you feelpersonally about them.

To anyone from another culture, this sounds cold and ungenerous. It is, a little, but in vain can you tell a visitor that the pay-off is that we make very loyal friendships in the long term. On a recent visit to Dublin, land of the laid-back, I was exhorted to throw my inhibitions to the winds, dress any old how, and not bother about punctuality. "You're in Ireland now," they said. "Anything goes." All very nice and friendly, if very foreign to me - but I wondered how they'd feel if I outlined similar g round rules to them when they came to London. "Shape up, O'Reilly," I'd say. "Get those shoes cleaned, turn up on time, watch those drinks, look snappy and don't forget the thank-you note. You're in England now."

The problem is, I wouldn't say it. Because one of the first principles of being a good English host is that you should never discuss such things as "ground rules." So writing is the only way out. Bella should outline these rules in a letter to her boyfriend's sister. Next time they'd like a contribution as they're broke; she and her boyfriend need time to themselves, and since the cat was upset by its exclusion last time, it would have to be tolerated some of the time during the next visit. Lots of love.

We're not a particularly hospitable race. Unlike Moroccan hosts, we don't move out of our double beds and sleep on the floor when visitors come to stay; we expect them to put up on the put-you-up. If we take them morning tea in bed it's probably only to make sure they don't come down for breakfast. For a few days we'll go to great, generous lengths, taking them on trips and asking people round to meet them; after that it's up to them to fit in with us, not us with them.

While blatant selfishness and real bad behaviour are unforgivable in any culture, this girl sounds young and clearly didn't know what was expected of her. Perhaps, anyway, she sees her older brother and Bella more like parents than equals; her selfishness may be due to her egocentric age than her vile personality. Plus her Australian parents may never have told her that the English were very funny about guests.

She should be given one chance to prove that the fiasco that was the last visit was due to ignorance. But only one.

THE CONFUSED VISITOR I would like to speak as one of those bastards who seemed never to give anything in return. From my perspective, the situation was never as clear-cut as it seemed.

I was never quite Bella's "house-guest from hell' because I always said thank you.

But I often felt like one and was completely unsure of what to do or say. Boundaries were fuzzy and vague. I was on their territory.

Admittedly, part of it was my responsibility - my own social gaucheness - but this was not helped by my hosts' lack of straight communication.

My perception was clouded by my hosts' reticence and reluctance to say what they thought or felt. My lack of experience told me that silence meant things were reasonably all right, whereas in reality I was failing to pick up the "not all right", non-verbal signals.

The upshot of all this was that tension mounted until an excuse was found to complain vehemently about a collection of incidents. Generally, the family member closest to me took on the responsibility of breaking this news.

My conclusion, several years later, is that it takes two to create a communication problem and two to work at unravelling it.

Yours sincerely, Nicholas E Gough Wiltshire THE HOUSE-GUEST FROM HELL Having been a house-guest from hell for some years, I am uniquely placed to advise you in your predicament.

The name of the game is to lay down the ground rules first, before menaces like me can actually get through the front door. Once we're in, you haven't a hope.

Or you could take the coward's way out and just grin and bear it - the sort of pathetic, weak-willed, self-denying attitude that parasites like me thrive on.

The choice is yours.

Best of luck, Paul Sussman London THE STRAIGHT-TALKER Bella should realise that although Australians speak English, they are different. They certainly will stay for weeks, eat you out of house and home, empty your drinks cupboard, and take hubby to the pub and force drinks on him so that he can't go to work the next morning.

This is not thoughtlessness. It is how they would expect you to behave if you visited them. They are hospitable and easy-going - but direct.

You should be the same: say what you mean. Don't rely on innuendo. It will miss them completely.

Yours sincerely, D Arkell Surrey THE HOST WHO FOUGHT BACK My husband and I suffered similar nightmare visitors - an American couple and their small child, who arrived empty-handed, avoided paying for anything, treated us like servants and lacked all the usual courtesies. We were shocked at first, then irritated, and finally furious.

It was tempting to treat our visitors like ill-mannered children, following every rudely demanded "give me...", "I'll have..." or "I want ..." with a quiet "What's the magic word?". Instead, we survived the ordeal by going into "please" and "thank you" overdrive ourselves, each gushing gratitude for any little thing the other did, marvelling at the delicious flavour of any food served and generally enthusing about everything. It started as a private joke but, amazingly, our guests began to get the idea.

To combat their meanness, once or twice I made sure I was too busy to go shopping and simply asked if they could pick up the required groceries when they were out sightseeing and even ventured that if they would like wine with supper (again), they might enjoy choosing some from our local merchant. It seemed to work and certainly made me feel less cross. Nevertheless, I couldn't wait for them to leave and next time they want to come to stay, I'm sorry - I'll be away on business.

Your sincerely, Judy Llewellyn Hampshire

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