Miss Manners

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Is “What are you doing?” a polite question?

I have had strangers and acquaintances alike ask me this question, and it puts me off-balance every time. One roommate made a habit of it when she found me at my computer, which prompted me to make strained and useless attempts to explain my work to her, somehow feeling I had to justify the use of my time.

I also recall an encounter on a farm I worked on, when a newly arrived intern I had not yet met asked me (without preamble) what I was doing as I removed my bike from a shed. Miss Manners, I almost felt she was accusing me of stealing. (This was a highly unlikely interpretation given the circumstances, and she did not admit to any such thought after hearing my answer.)

Am I overly sensitive, or does Miss Manners perhaps agree that “What are you doing?” (at least phrased so bluntly) is a question properly reserved for those with a particular right or need to know?

GENTLE READER: Your vehement response to an apparently innocuous question raises Miss Manners’ own curiosity about what you are doing. She will, however, refrain from asking, if you promise to assume, going forward, that your questioners’ motives are not sinister or critical.

It is not always a polite question, but it is usually meant as a casual one, and your answer can be equally so: “Oh, I’m on the computer” or “I’m getting out my bicycle.”

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a 30-year-old woman who has been dealing with debilitating skin issues, the one most hindering being a severe sensitivity to scent -- specifically, excessive cologne and perfume, to the point where I will break out in a rash and asthma symptoms. This has led me to leave a job I love, and my apartment.

I avoid the big department stores when out, but occasionally when out in public, if someone is drenched in scent (not just a spritz), I have a bad reaction. I try to just take myself out of the situation. On occasion, those individuals have made rude remarks about my quick exit and take it personally when I about-face.

I am wondering what is a polite way to handle the situation. (I also believed it was not polite to drench oneself in perfume or cologne, even before I had these issues.) Should I explain their own lack of respect for others in general, or just keep walking away and take my licks?

GENTLE READER: Unless you are making faces at the fragrant offenders, Miss Manners wonders that they take a stranger’s departure personally. But as any explanation would require remaining in range, she prefers that your quick exit remain unexplained. You might, however, attempt to disguise it better, perhaps by seeing someone in the distance or looking as if you just realized you left the gas on at home.

(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, dearmissmanners@gmail.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)

More like Miss Manners