Dear Carolyn:

I meet someone, we go out a couple of times, things seem good. I call, I call back, we chat. I call, leave a message -- silence. Call two or three days later, leave a message -- silence.

Now, I can understand why someone might not return calls -- it's the path of least resistance when you don't want to deal with someone. I also think there's a difference between not returning a "give me a call sometime" (okay) and "I've got an extra ticket -- please call back by Wednesday" (not okay).

But when, after several unreturned messages, I do reach someone -- or they call back a couple of weeks later -- they seem offended if I tell them this bothers me and ask them to return my calls more promptly. Are all these people being rude, or was I out for a beer when social conventions were being explained?

Puzzled

Wouldn't normally let you ramble on, but with so many people sleeping though SocCon 101, it's best to be thorough. Everyone, please: Unless it's from a telemarketer or your stalker, return the call -- even to say "no." You're not going to die.

And neither will you, Puzzled, if you let a few women go unscolded. When people are rude, stop calling them.

I think that was covered in Duh 101.

Carolyn:

Faithful fan, fellow writer, college kid with a problem. Girls keep telling me the "vibe" I give off is that I'm a player. Cocky, arrogant, you name it. It could be the clothes (I get "pretty boy" frequently), the earrings (one in each ear) or just the head-up, confident attitude. Yeah, it's going to sound cliched to say I'm a shy, nice guy looking for a good girl, but it's true. While I have no problem "hooking up" with girls, I really struggle when the chips are down in the preliminary stages of dating. I'm 22 and have never had a serious girlfriend. Bottom line: How do I shake this "player" stigma?

Not a Player, They Just Think I'm One

Here's the real cliche: Guy adopts swagger to compensate for shyness, then wonders why the ladies aren't falling at his expensively shod feet.

The girls don't think you're a player -- you just want them to. And they see right through the "head-up, confident attitude." You sound too bright not to see through it yourself. To shake the stigma, stop trying so hard to be someone else.

Dear Carolyn:

I have a co-worker who is a nightmare. We sit *right* next to each other. I think she may have low self-esteem because she's constantly telling me how smart she is, how talented she is, how wonderful her life is, etc., and also how undereducated I am, how empty my life seems, how she could never live in a town house -- needs a "real" house -- etc. She also constantly belittles co-workers to me -- they're dumb, incompetent, lazy.

I've gotta find a way to let her know this isn't acceptable -- it's been going on, like, three years now without my saying a word. Spineless, I know. But I love my job and don't want to leave, and would like to set some limits in a cordial, professional way.

P.H.

You have to admit, the new understanding of low self-esteem is the best thing that ever happened to losers. They've gotten clemency across the board.

You recognize that she's a pity case, and that's good. Very evolved of you. But you still let her get to you -- not good. And not good for you, harboring such resentment 40-plus hours a week.

A spine implant is the only answer. This woman's a harpy, sure, but there will always be harpies. And you will always be their victim of choice, as long as you cower in their presence. Your inertness is your nightmare. Three years of taking it, taking it, taking it -- regardless of the "it" -- is the surest route to a Zantac habit.

The surest route to relief? Ask her to stop belittling you and your colleagues. Sounds gratifying, if you ask me. But if confrontation's not your speed, there are many delightful ways to stage a doormat uprising.

Exploit her entertainment value: Start agreeing with everything she says about you, with not a whisper of sarcasm. "Yes, my house is made of paste!" "Yes, I could right use some book learnin'!" "Oh yes, if only we all had your talent!"

Knock her off balance: After her self-serving spew sessions, ask her, "Do you feel better now?"

Make her defend her actions: "So, do you really think that was something I wanted to hear?"

Deny her satisfaction: Do not respond. Silence will nullify her hatefulness -- but only if it's a decisive action, and not your current, fearful retreat.

Silence isn't an option, though, when she aims her vile spew at your co-workers. For you to be an unwilling conspirator is unacceptable -- on both your parts. Say, "I will not talk about people that way," and excuse yourself. Surely you have the stuffing to walk away.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or tellme@washpost.com, and join Carolyn's live discussion at noon today or at 8 p.m. Monday on The Post's Web site, www.washingtonpost.com