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.”