Sense & Sensitivity by Harriette Cole


DEAR HARRIETTE: On the train, there was a woman talking away on her phone. I was sitting a few seats behind her, and I could hear her, but not what she was saying. She was not disturbing me. The woman sitting across from her was irritated and became hostile very quickly. She asked the woman when she was going to get off the phone, and the woman on the phone did not take this well. As she got off the phone, it escalated. Words were thrown back and forth -- comments such as, "Why are you screaming on this crowded train? Calm down, lady!" "I'm screaming because you have no sense of common decency!" "You're crazy!" "Do you want to try me?" "I'm crazy? You're crazy!" It got heated. Should the woman on the phone have entertained the belligerence of her attacker? -- Innocent Bystander, Bronx, N.Y.

DEAR INNOCENT BYSTANDER: A lot went wrong during that train ride. For starters, it is difficult for people to talk on the phone in public, confined spaces. For this reason, it is wise not to talk on the phone on a bus or train. If it cannot be avoided, keep your voice low and your conversation short. Essentially, if you consider the people sitting around you as you are talking on the phone, chances are you will be brief. That the woman on the phone did not bother you does not mean that she did not bother others, as evidenced by the woman who got upset.

It would have been better for the phone talker to apologize for disrupting others' peace and leave it at that. It is amazing how effective an apology can be for dissolving pent-up emotions. What she should not have done was add fuel to the fire of her attacker. When people are upset, they rarely behave rationally. Challenging her attacker was a potentially dangerous action.

DEAR HARRIETTE: What do you do when you're sick and you're meeting new and potentially important people? The person extends his hand, but you do not want to pass on your germs or come off as rude. -- Sick and Suffering, Westchester, N.Y.

DEAR SICK AND SUFFERING: When you are truly sick, you should stay home and get well. I realize how compelling it can be to go everywhere you are invited, especially if "important" people are there. But if you feel too sick to shake hands, you should keep your hands and body at home.

That said, if you find yourself in a public setting when you are not well, refrain from shaking hands, hugging or kissing other people. Position your body so that it is difficult for others to reach out to touch you. You can simply say that you are feeling under the weather and do not want to pass on your germs.