Q. Is it possible to be guilty of being rude when you absolutely can't help it?

Let me give you some examples.

The first has to do with an incident in which everybody treated me as if I had made some terrible error, but I only reacted natually. It was at a party, and I was sitting in a leather chair with steel arms.

A woman I'd been talking to in the buffet line took the seat next to me, in another chair just like mine. She drew the chair up exactly next to mine, pining my arm between the two steel beams.

It hurt like crazy, and I screamed. She then said stupidly, "Did I hurt you?" and of course I said yes.

How it got to seem like my fault, I don't know, but I saw people glaring at me and shooting her sympathetic looks as I rubbed my arm.

I can tell you other examples: On a train once, someone put a suitcase down on my foot, and I have been hit in the face on the bus by the swinging purse of a standing woman. Each time, I have cried out in pain before I even thought about it.

The party incident bothers me, however. What should I have done? After all, I didn't decide to yell; I just did.

A. Natural instinct only excuses you so much in polite society. Etiquette, after all, is the imposition of civilized behavior over the chaos of instinct.

In society, we consider the motive: Icy politeness may be obviously motivated by the hope of inflicting insult, and should not be treated as if it were kindly meant. The reverse is that what might be an obvious insult is not taken as such if no offense was truly intended. Your acknowledging an injury when none was meant is as bad as swallowing an intended insult.

Granted that you could not help crying out, you must then reply to the stupid question by saying, "Oh, no, no, I'll be all right. I was just startled." The red mark will belie this, of course, but only makes you seem the more saintly in your forgiveness.

In any case, there's not much point in making the person remorseful when there is no way that person can repair the injury.

Miss Manners does acknowledge that the scream is helpful in obtaining the necessary apology. This apology is what should bring forth your denial. If none is forthcoming, you may leave the scream as your final remark.