Push so often comes to shove these days that Miss Manners had assumed this example to be just another of the trivial annoyances of modern daily life:

A lady had complained that gentlemen who courteously allowed her to precede them down the aisles of airplanes or buses often placed a hand on her back or shoulder "in what is perhaps intended to be a reassuring or guiding gesture." Although she presumed good will, she didn't care for the familiarity.

But the question of touching and being touched is always sensitive, and in this case, Miss Manners' simple acquiescence in that mild displeasure (along with her recommendation of a small shriek, followed by an apologetic smile to acknowledge to the gentleman that the alarm was an overreaction) seems to have touched a nerve.

Reactions ranged from a detailed explanation of why a gentleman who refrained from using such a hands-on approach would find himself penalized by his gallantry and forced to watch the entire planeload then empty out ahead of him, to diagnoses that a lady who objects to being touched by anyone must be emotionally ill. Some of the latter were delivered with pity and others with scorn.

Miss Manners was interested in, but not surprised by, the range of interpretations that Gentle Readers put on the same description of the same gesture.

Context is crucial in understanding even the simplest act. She had herself inquired, in response to the original letter, whether the gesture might be interpreted either as a sexual overture, which would be outrageous and illegal, or as an unavoidable result of crowding, which would make it unfortunate but acceptable.

If those possibilities were eliminated, the question would be how to deal with a deliberate and presumptuous gesture arising from either impatience or misplaced and careless chumminess. It was curbing that to which Miss Manners had addressed her answer.

What had not occurred to her -- what shocked her -- was the idea that the touch could be deemed a purposeful form of intimacy, either romantic or friendly, and still be considered acceptable.

"I think this woman is sick, or maybe she would rather have another woman touch her," someone wrote.

"This lady has a chronic personal problem that you may make worse," wrote another. "I am a toucher, but only to a select few people that I like. A man -- a gentleman -- can read when a woman does not wish to be touched. Your solution will give the lady (?) a case of leprosy that will never go away. Yes, it will cure the 'offender,' and every other man within earshot, of ever considering approaching her, much less touching her. Isolation in a crowd is worse than the affliction."

A lady who sympathized with the complainer wrote, "You wouldn't believe some of the strange women who feel free not only to touch arms and shoulders, but even to try to hug me. When I back off, they sincerely ask, 'Did I hurt you?' or 'Do you have a sunburn?'

"Several people have actually gotten angry, which would lead me to believe that they weren't all that fond of me to begin with. The 'more understanding' ones sympathetically assure me that in time I will be better, maybe even well and more like they are.

"If a man were to do some of these things to an unsuspecting woman, it would be considered an insult."

We can't even be sure of that anymore, can we?

Miss Manners would hardly have thought it necessary to state that in a civilized society, only certain limited physical gestures, such as hand-shaking, are considered to be of near-neutral emotional content. (And even the handshake contains a presumed approval, or optimism about a new acquaintance, and may be withheld in extreme circumstances, when one wants to show public disapproval by leaving hanging the outstretched arm of, say, a war criminal.) The affectation of cheek-kissing as a social greeting has come to be similarly meaningless.

But for other gestures, such as hugging, individuals are presumed to be allowed to exercise choice. Miss Manners does not subscribe to the idea that it is such a cold world that any physical human contact is reassuring, and even less to the notion that the act is more important than who performs it.

While realizing that inadvertent touching is sometimes inevitable in crowds, Miss Manners would like to repeat that polite people make every effort to keep their hands to themselves. Now she would also like to request that those who believe that it is healthy to want to be touched indiscriminately, and sick to dislike that, keep such unseemly thoughts to themselves.

While gazing out of my office window one lazy afternoon, I noticed a nice-looking young man helping a nice-looking young lady in distress. She had a flat tire on her automobile.

Fortunately nothing like this has ever happened to me, but in case a similar situation ever arises, I have an etiquette question:

Is it proper to just say, "Thank you" and drive away, or should you offer him something for doing you this service -- cash, for instance? And if so, how much?

Unless the nice young man works for a nice young garage, one does not offer him anything but gratitude. To attempt to give money to someone who is clearly performing a favor unrelated to his employment is an insult.

A more difficult question would be, "How much gratitude?" Changing a tire is a big favor. The thanks should be profuse. However, one is not in any way obligated to offer gratitude that interferes with eventually "simply driving away" on that freshly changed tire.