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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I am a retired executive of a nationally known insurance company. I was with it for 31 years. I'm now 62. My wife died two years ago, and after her death I sold my house, returned to my hometown, bought a condo, joined AARP and settled in to being a "golden-ager."

Every morning I have breakfast at my favorite restaurant and read the newspaper while I eat. I'm very anti-smoking, and the restaurant has a section for nonsmokers.

A few months ago, a nice-looking woman began coming into the restaurant about the same time (mid-morning) as I did. She'd sit in the smoking section, have a couple of cigarettes, several cups of coffee and read the newspaper. She appears to be about my age, well-dressed and very attractive. I have never spoken to her. I don't even know her name.

One morning we were the only two customers in the place, and a waitress, while pouring my refill, said, "Why don't you go over there and speak to that lady and get acquainted? She lost her husband last year, and she's a very nice person."

I replied, "Thank you, but I avoid being around smokers."

This morning, the manager of the restaurant said to me, "You insulted one of my customers by saying you wanted nothing to do with her, so now she's having her coffee up the street."

Abby, that's not true -- all I said was, "I avoid being around smokers."

Should I get the lady's name and address and write her a note of apology? -- UNSURE

DEAR UNSURE: You don't owe the lady an apology; a note from you would indicate a special interest in her.

The waitress showed poor judgment in repeating your remark. She should have kept her mouth shut -- and so should the manager, who will be lucky if he doesn't lose a second customer for putting you on the spot.

DEAR ABBY: I'm Asian, and my name is Jose. This confuses many of the people I meet, who frequently ask me where I'm from. Most people are probably just making conversation, but I find the question impolite.

I grew up in Kansas; I have no accent, and my English is better than most Americans. Is asking about someone's race acceptable in polite conversation?

I'm not ashamed of my heritage; if it's relevant to the conversation, I'll bring it up. I have finally come up with standard responses to the questions I'm asked.

When people ask me where I'm from, I smile and reply: "Kansas"; where my parents are from: "Canada"; how I got a name like Jose: "My parents gave it to me"; my nationality: "American."

My friends think my answers are too flippant. What do you think? -- JOSE FIDELINO, KANSAS

DEAR JOSE: I think your answers are honest and serve as a polite reminder that some questions are too personal to be asked by a stranger.

Abby shares more of her favorite, easy-to-prepare recipes. To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, More Favorite Recipes, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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