Sense & Sensitivity by Harriette Cole

Is Itching a Psychosomatic Sign of Snobbery?

DEAR HARRIETTE: I met a homeless man at my friend's church. I walked by him as I entered the church, and he stopped and talked to me and was very pleasant. Before we parted ways, he reached out to shake my hand, which I did. But afterward, my hand started itching -- seriously.

After a bit, I went and washed my hands, but I felt so bad. I don't want to be the type of person who is any particular way about people in need. As my mother would always say, "There but for the grace of God go I." I feel horrible that I even had to wash my hand, but honestly, it started itching.

How can I change my attitude so that something like this won't upset me in the future? -- Itchy, Harlem, N.Y.

DEAR ITCHY: Take a deep breath and relax. Slowly review the moment you shared with the homeless man. It sounds as if you had a positive exchange. You stopped and talked with him, one human being to another. You were respectful, and you parted ways kindly. You should feel only positive things about that aspect of your encounter.

As far as cleanliness and handshaking go, you absolutely did the right thing to wash your hands. It is possible that your hand itched after shaking another hand that may not have been clean.

By the way, lack of cleanliness is not relegated to one particular group. Many people who are not homeless fail to wash their hands when they use the restroom. But obviously the chances of someone who is homeless having dirty, calloused or infectious hands is more likely. Do not feel bad about washing your hands. It doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you practical.

To avoid being upset by something like this in the future, adopt a practical attitude. Be cordial with everyone. Speak further to the people who attract your attention. Limit whom you touch, especially if you don't know them. But never pass judgment.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I have noticed that a young college graduate who recently came to work at my company never wears a coat. She wears what look like lightweight jackets and such. When I asked her about it, she shrugged it off, saying that what she wears is cool.

It is cold where we live. I wonder if she can't afford a coat. She has an entry-level job, and she moved from Florida. Would it be OK for me to offer to give her a coat that I have? I don't want to insult her, but she needs it. -- Caring Co-worker, Chicago

DEAR CARING CO-WORKER: You never know if she will accept your offer, but it is worth a try. Discreetly bring a coat (the one you think she is most likely to wear) to work in a bag and give it to her, saying you brought her a present. Do not press her to react, respond or wear the coat. Let her take it from there.