Sense & Sensitivity by Harriette Cole


DEAR HARRIETTE: I would like to comment on your column about a caring co-worker who wants to give a younger colleague a coat.

While I don't know the age of the caring co-worker, I would have to guess that she is older. I'm 53 and have lived in the Chicago area for most of my life, and I don't wear a winter coat except to walk the dog. Yesterday the temperature here was 10, with a wind chill in the negative numbers, and I wore my usual medium-weight pullover while running errands. A couple of times, women approached me about the fact I didn't have on a winter coat, and I told them I never wear one. It drove my mother (a nurse) nuts for years (I also go out with wet hair and no hat), but since I'm rarely sick and don't complain about being cold, she has finally come around and doesn't even comment on it anymore.

Also, in the case of the younger generation, my son and his wife (in their early 30s) are rarely in winter coats, either. For them, it's a fashion thing.

I would suggest that the caring co-worker get to know this younger person better before dropping a used coat at her desk. Their taste in clothes could be miles apart. The younger worker might be insulted that someone was so presumptuous as to decide that she needed a used coat. She could be utterly embarrassed to be "mothered," and maybe freaked out that someone is watching so closely her comings and goings and the clothes she's wearing.

On the other hand, if the caring co-worker gets to know this younger person, maybe even "doing lunch" outside the office, that would give her an opportunity to find out if the younger person would be receptive to the idea of a used coat. If she is interested, this sharing also could take place away from the office, where there is less likelihood of others observing and making embarrassing comments -- or, worse, thinking that all their hand-me-down clothes should go to this younger worker.

I think there's a fine line that needs to be walked when giving used clothing, especially when it involves an office setting. -- Coat-Free, Chicago

DEAR HARRIETTE: I went to school with a young woman (early 20s) who also did not have a warm coat. She walked several miles to campus rather than taking mass transit, even in the midst of Chicago's cold winters. When I offered her a coat, she said she preferred to layer.

The actual story -- as told by her apartment mate -- was that she was from a wealthy New York City family and apparently felt that living a life of deprivation demonstrated her independence and fortitude. -- Layered, Chicago

DEAR COAT-FREE AND LAYERED: Wow, I got so many wonderful letters about this topic that I decided to run two. You both give great alternative thoughts regarding the wearing of a winter coat -- or not -- in frigid temperatures.

The moral of your stories: Do not assume what another needs. Ask discreetly, and respond accordingly.