Q. I am in my middle thirties, female and white. In the course of daily business, I am often addressed in public places by young black men who make eye contact and offer a friendly greeting that invites conversation -- usually "How you doing?"

While I applaud friendliness and greetings in general, I do not know these individuals, and I find it difficult to strike a balance between rudely cutting them and making an over-friendly response that could be (honestly or deliberately) misinterpreted.

I am not greeted in this way by people of any other age, sex or ethnic group.

Do you know of other women, white or black, who can throw some light on what I experience as provocative over-familiarity?

How do I handle it? If these young men are, in effect, daring me to knock a chip off their shoulders, I need a response that will politely neutralize them without rebuffing the occasional person who is, in fact, merely being friendly.

A. Miss Manners insists on removing from this situation two elements that are irrelevant: race and friendship.

If there is any race or ethnic group in which the young men do not consider it fun to bother strange young women on the streets, Miss Manners would like to know about it so she can offer her congratulations.

This is not to be interpreted, however, as acceptance or even resignation on Miss Manners' part. "Custom" it may be, but in no such group do the elders -- that is to say, the mothers and fathers of the young ladies being harassed -- consider this a legitimate custom.

Nor can it be construed as friendliness, as if you were talking about offhand pleasantries in a village where everyone knows everyone else at least by sight.

It should never be treated as such. The young men's intentions may range from merely showing off to one another to dangerous designs, but no lady should engage in any dialogue with them, even to the extent of delivering a "rebuff," which will be considered a challenge.

Rest assured you are not rudely "cutting" these people -- a "cut" is the refusal to recognize someone one actually knows. What you are doing is refusing to get to know anyone under such circumstances.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.