Dear Mary: does eating meat count as a dietary requirement? 

Q. My friend and I are being driven mad by a woman at our church who, after Mass, buttonholes us in the car park and goes on about a small airfield she is in a dispute with. In church she appears devout but I can’t help noticing she never asks how we are. I once stood for 30 minutes outside Aldi while she told me about the deaths of her parents in Covid lockdowns. Naturally I was sympathetic but a couple who had let me go ahead to pay as I had only three items must have been surprised I was still there. How can we avoid her without being

Dear Mary: How can I stop dinner guests squabbling about politics?

Q. How can I prevent my guests from arguing over politics at the dinner table? I have been working abroad for far too long so have taken a house in London next month to give a few dinners to catch up with friends. To one of these I want to invite two couples in particular. Both are good friends of mine, although they have never met each other. I know they would get on extremely well and probably even work together as they are in the same fields – but they have very different politics and are bound to start discussing these as soon as they walk through the door.

Dear Mary: how do I get talking to a pretty woman on WhatsApp?

Q. Scrolling through my WhatsApp contacts, I have found a name I don’t recognise but when I click on the profile I can see it is a very pretty girl. I suspect I may have met her on a night out when I might have had too much to drink which would account for me not remembering who she is. Because I don’t know how long ago this meeting was, or even where it was, I’m not sure if I can now send her a message and start a conversation. What do you think, Mary? – E.L., London SW11 A. Send a lunchtime WhatsApp saying, ‘I’m standing outside the Wolseley

Dear Mary: how should a newly single, fiftysomething man make a pass?

Q. My friend kindly arranged for me to use her freelance gardener and, despite the gardener working only four hours a week, she has transformed my garden. Today I asked if she could do any more hours and she said only on an ad hoc basis. This evening I received a message from another friend asking for the gardener’s number, as hers has left. She has a superior garden to mine and I am terrified this wonderful gardener will give the ad hoc hours she has promised me to this potential new employer. I have tried to prevaricate but I can’t lie to this lady. Mary, what to do? –

Dear Mary: how to leave a boring book club

Q. I am organising a funeral for a close relative and am puzzled that some people wish to attend the wake but not the service of committal at the crematorium. My view is that if you want to enjoy the wake, which will be a good party in a perfect country pub, then you should be willing to pay your respects first. Should I simply not inform these people in advance of the wake venue, since it is usual for this to be revealed only at the funeral on the order of service sheet? – Name and address withheld A. You could reply: ‘We haven’t quite sorted out the wake

Dear Mary: how can I make my untidy twin look better? 

Q. I have a public profile and have always looked after my personal presentation, but my identical twin has never bothered with hers. She wouldn’t dream of covering up the broken veins on her cheeks and her hair is quite grey and frizzy. Now I’m getting married and worry that my sister’s appearance could cause some of the clients I’ve invited to rethink my ‘relevance’. What should I do, Mary? – Name and address withheld A. Explain to your twin that after you had paid for a hair and make-up artist for the wedding, you came under pressure from a colleague whose hair and make-up-artist daughter could get urgently needed publicity

Dear Mary: what is the perfect response to an awkward discussion?

Q. I recently joined our gardener during his tea break and asked: ‘What news? He replied: ‘We went to see Dad in his coffin yesterday – he looked very smart in his suit. It is amazing what they can do these days.’ I was quite unable to think of a suitable response – and still cannot. Any thoughts, Mary? — R.H., Cheltenham A. One good all-purpose response in these situations is to nod and murmur: ‘So they say… So they say…’ Q. I am a moderately successful journalist and sometimes friends ask me to help their children enter the trade. The problem is: after initial contact, usually by text or

Dear Mary: Should I tell my boss I swiped his champagne?

Q. I have got myself in a pickle. My boss was given a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal by a client. It came in a very smart presentation box. I thought it would be funny to open it and replace the champagne with a bottle of fizzy water. My boss duly took it home and I waited several days, expecting him to come in one morning laughing and saying: ‘Where is it?’ Alas, silence. So in passing I nudged him with a grin on my face and said: ‘How was the champagne?’ He then told me he had fallen out with a childhood friend and they had not spoken since

Dear Mary: How do I stop fans asking me for selfies?

Q. My wife and I live in a grace-and-favour house with beautiful gardens, of which our landlord is justly proud. He employs a full-time gardener to tend the grounds around the big house and also around our cottage. The gardener has recently developed a habit of using petrol-powered tools, such as strimmers and lawn mowers, at increasingly antisocial hours, including a recent 6.50 a.m. chainsaw attack on some dead trees. We do not pay for his services, which include not only looking after our little garden but also keeping us stocked with firewood and clearing a tennis court for our use, so we are reluctant to appear ungrateful. How can

Dear Mary: What’s the cure for writer’s block?

Q. Do you have a solution for writer’s block, Mary? A friend is the best company in the world, but I haven’t been able to speak to her for months. I know she reads her emails but they bounce back with the generic reply that she cannot respond until she has completed an urgent piece of writing work. I suspect she is blocked because this piece of writing is important to her on an emotional level but she is also the authority on the subject and only 5,000 words are required. — W.M., London W3 A. In writing it is often much easier to correct something bad than to begin

Dear Mary: What’s the etiquette of bumping into someone in a doctor’s waiting room?

Q. I own a flat and have rented two rooms out to friends from university. Now they have fallen in love. This means the three of us are often in the kitchen at the same time or watching television together at close quarters. They never stop kissing and cuddling and declaring their love – in front of me. Of course I am happy for them but even if I had my own boyfriend, I would consider PDAs TMI. How can I get them to stop without coming across as bitter?  – Name and address withheld A. This phase will probably not last long but you are right – Public Displays

Dear Mary: How do I get my host to open the wine I brought?

Q. I have a friend who is a serious gardener. I myself am reasonably keen but not in her league. Last year she gave me some rare plants. Unfortunately I didn’t plant them very carefully and they ended up dying. She lives some distance away and I felt quite safe pretending they had flourished. With any other gardener I would have had no compunction in admitting they had died but our relationship is complicated. She’s now asked to come and stay for a local wedding and I’m dreading her discovering the truth. What can I do, Mary? – Name and address withheld  A. When she asks how the plants are

Dear Mary: How do I find out the truth about the family tapestry?

Q. I was lucky enough to marry into a family where everyone gets on well. One of my brothers-in-law was the only one with a big enough wall in his house to hang a family treasure of a fragile antique tapestry, but last year he too moved into a smaller house and the tapestry now lies in his attic. When one of us asks how the tapestry is doing he moans ‘ruined, no doubt – ruined by moths’ but refuses to discuss it further or let anyone else have a look. The tapestry may or may not be beyond repair, but this much-loved man has always preferred to keep his

Dear Mary: Should I give weekend guests paper napkins or napkin rings?

Q. I have a hatred of paper napkins – eating outside, they blow away; inside, people drop them on the floor and my dogs chew them, making a horrid mess. I love the old-fashioned way of giving weekend guests napkin rings but our friends tend to drink too much and can’t remember which is theirs! We have a lot of people staying for Christmas – what is the answer? – A.E., Pewsey A. Many companies now will embroider names on to pretty napkins which you can give your guests on Christmas Eve and not only can they keep them for the whole festival holiday but they can take them home

Dear Mary: How do I curb my brother’s unsavoury language?

Q. My brother, who lives in southern France, uses unsavoury words to gain my attention, such as ‘infernal swine’, ‘schweinhund’ and ‘w****r’. Being somewhat genteel myself, I am reluctant to engage in verbal fisticuffs across the ocean. His literary aspirations, I believe, may have topped off with the Biggles compendium. What strategy, Mary, would you suggest I follow to maintain some fraternal friendship yet decrease the negative tone? — Name withheld, Toronto A. Tell him you have got new software on the computer which has an annoying habit of obliterating words it does not like. This makes his emails sometimes difficult to read. For example, he said that ‘x is

Dear Mary: Why aren’t I getting more Instagram ‘likes’?

Q. As a novice user of Instagram I was flattered at how quickly I gathered followers – 200 already. Many of these are old friends of 40 years or more who I never get to see, partly because my circumstances have changed – very much for the better – and I have moved out of London. Although I say it myself, I have posted 16 stunning videos, which have been viewed multiple times, but I am averaging only 12 ‘likes’ per post. Mary, how should I interpret this traffic? — M.N., Bridport, Dorset A. Unless you are selling something, and your Instagram is designed to drive commercial traffic, you should

Dear Mary: How do I get out of a friend’s bad birthday party?

Q. I shall be spending more time in the company of newer acquaintances in the West Country and would appreciate your advice with regard to a resurfacing problem: narcolepsy. The condition is the source of much embarrassment and I find myself at pains to explain it upfront. (People may infer spurious connections due to limited understanding – that is to say ‘narc’ is now much more closely associated with narcissistic tendencies or worse, narcotics.) In anticipation of negative reactions how can I deal with any awkwardness? I am keen to attend social events. – Name withheld, Wimbledon A. Turn your condition to your advantage by arriving with a lightweight, blown-up

Dear Mary: How do I confront my husband without telling him I hacked his emails?

Q. The Queen had the knack of making you feel that you were the only person in the room. At parties I find a few friends are listening to other people’s conversations as they listen to you, and give themselves away by interjecting a sudden response to the other conversation. Mary, what could I say that is more tactful than: ‘Am I boring you?!’ – A.S., Petersfield A. As an equalising strategy quip: ‘I must admit I was tempted to chip in to that conversation myself. I suppose we must have been boring each other!’ Q. I plan to travel from Gloucestershire to pay my respects to Queen Elizabeth, and

Dear Mary: How do I get my friends to leave after a dinner party?

Q. We have made available our mews cottage – 30 yards from our main house – to a woman with small children, who has had a tough time recently through no fault of her own. She will be staying pending her divorce. Our problem is that she keeps asking us to dinner. We like her and she is a good cook and we understand that she is trying to give something back since we are not charging rent. However, our lives are just too busy to see even our very best friends more than once a month. We can’t use any of the normal excuses, e.g. that we are away

Dear Mary: How can I find out whether old friends fancy each other?

Q. How can I find out, without making things awkward, whether one of my close male friends fancies one of my close female friends? They have known each other for years but until recently were both in long-term relationships. Now she has developed a major crush on him. Is there a way I could help to move things forward? It is too risky to tell him directly, because if he’s not interested, it could spoil the whole dynamic of our group. – Name and address withheld A. Wait till you are alone with the male friend and scrolling on your phones. Randomly mention the female’s name, e.g: ‘Oh wow, X