INDISPENSABLE ADVICE FROM REAL LIFE'S AGONY AUNT AND UNCLE
The Perfect Wife

One of the presents I received for Christmas was a book on getting fit, changing your diet, losing weight, improving your image, etc. This gift was from my husband! Does this mean he thinks I'm a fat, undisciplined slob? My feelings are rather hurt.

Suzanne, Somerset

He says: It certainly does sound as though hubby thinks you have room for improvement! But why do you take this in such a negative way? If you are a fat, undisciplined slob at least he is giving you some positive encouragement to change your ways.

She says: This kind of gift is on a par with control underwear and deodorants: something of a poisoned chalice. Perhaps your husband was simply being thoughtless, not malicious. Or perhaps the poor little man was thinking too hard and trying to break out of the usual flowers/chocolates mould. Is he a fighting-fit Adonis with a six-pack himself? I'd bet that he is not. If you can bear it (and it will be difficult) throw yourself with immense gusto into his suggested regime. Serve nothing but bean sprouts, ban alcohol of all kinds from the home, absent yourself jogging on all possible occasions (should you happen sometimes to jog to the nearest nice wine bar and bistro, who's to know?) I'm sure he will soon be sick of the fitness bore he has created.

DROP-IN CENTRE

The other day an old friend rang me and said could he and his girlfriend come and stay in our flat on Saturday night: they are going to a party in Birmingham and then have another engagement the following day so they just wanted to stay over. We felt put on the spot and reluctantly said yes, but we really didn't want them to stay. How could we have refused without causing offence?

Richard, Birmingham

He says: Why didn't you want them to stay over? It seems a small enough favour. If you have a concrete and proper reason to refuse their request then proffer it; if not it will be perfectly obvious to them that you simply don't want to put yourselves out.

She says: People who swoop on you in this way are most annoying. It is the need for an immediate response that causes the problem and catches one on the hop. The only way round this kind of situation is to keep an all-purpose Excuse always at the ready: nothing too elaborate or complicated, something that you can recall at a moment's notice. If you can say with great conviction something like "Oh, what a shame! We're away that weekend ourselves!" or "Oh, what a shame! That's the weekend we've got my mother and father staying already!" without hesitation or faffing you are off the hook immediately. If you are one half of a couple, of course you must be sure to both have The Excuse off pat and in an identical form. I know of one couple who have made a pact to refuse automatically all invitations or requests for accommodation in just this way to give themselves a breathing space and time for reflection: if, after thinking about it, you relent or change your mind, it's so easy to ring back and say your plans have altered or your arrangements have fallen through.

STAGGERINGLY GOOD

I am already feeling dejected about my New Year's resolutions. I have totted up a list but recognise rather a lot of the things on it - in fact, practically all of them - are familiar from years gone by and I have never managed to follow any of them through. Is there any way to strengthen my resolve?

Martin, Plymouth

He says: Changing our behaviour is one of the most difficult things we can attempt, and to try to alter several aspects of it at once is well- nigh impossible. Why not make just one resolution for 1999: to accept and love yourself as you are?

She says: It is oddly perverse to start a rigorous programme of self- improvement on the night of the biggest party of the year, but if you are determined, you could try staggering your options: start one thing in January, another in February, etc. With a bit of luck this will make the load more manageable, and by the Millennium you will be perfection personified.

DRESS SENSE

I am about to change jobs and move to a new firm where the dress code is far more relaxed than at my previous company. Everyone seems to slouch around in jeans and I find it rather uncomfortable. I much prefer to wear a proper suit, but fear that I will stand out like a sore thumb.

Derek, Maidstone

He says: Indeed you will stand out like a sore thumb. When you take on a new post, you also take on board the corporate culture that it is part of: if you cannot respect your colleagues how can you expect to fit in with the ethos of the company? I would seriously re-consider this job offer. A stuffed shirt in a young and trendy environment will truly be a square peg in a round hole.

She says: A square peg will fit perfectly well into a round hole if the hole is big enough. Don't make a big fuss about office dress, but stick to what you feel comfortable in. It's very unlikely that anyone will take you to task for being too smart, and your new colleagues will get used to it. After all, they have to get used to everything else about you and your suit will probably be way down the list of potential problems. Perhaps you will garner a reputation as the amiable office eccentric whose conventional exterior hides a brilliant, lateral-thinking interior (assuming, of course, that you are sufficiently brilliant and lateral thinking).

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