"What are you doing?" is a question that no longer prompts a simple answer, even from the innocent.

A typical response, if it were frank, would be, "Talking on the phone, playing solitaire on the computer, listening to the radio, eating, leafing through mail catalogues, examining my cuticles and, oops, pouring coffee all over myself."

That would be a list from a relatively polite person. It is possible that no rudeness was being committed, because the only other human being involved in the situation described cannot see what else is going on. So unless the sounds of clicking keys, music, chewing, paper rattling, swallowing and pain give away the game, so to speak, no one has been offended. As Miss Manners is fond of explaining, undetected rudeness doesn't count.

Unfortunately, people do pick up these sounds over the noise of their own clicking, chewing and music, and they are offended, so it does count. It is insulting to find out that one is not interesting enough to command another person's full attention. Pointing out that the offended one can be heard over the telephone to be washing dishes (or at least one hopes that's what the sound of running water means) is of no use.

That is because of another belief about etiquette--this one unauthorized--called That's Different. This is the practice of granting oneself a free pass for special circumstances. Unlike everyone else, one knows oneself to be overcommitted, hard-working and exhausted. The only way to be able to deal with others at all is to do it while meeting other demands.

The result is that two people can be engaged in a conversation to which neither is paying full attention, each responding to guesses about what the other is saying, and each indignant to pick up signs that the other is putting the red six on the black seven.

Miss Manners is not opposed to multi-tasking, which has a long tradition. If medieval ladies hadn't had needlework to occupy their hands when they had to listen to those old crusade stories, their gallant knights would not have survived to find the Holy Grail. (They didn't find it, anyway? Well, that's the kind of thing you miss when you stop paying attention.)

And if modern business people weren't able to hold a drink, grab a bite, shake hands and extract a business card all at the same time, the commercial world would grind to a halt. (It's weakening already: People used to be able to do not only all that at once, but to smoke and make unwelcome advances besides.)

Miss Manners does oppose two activities closely associated with multi-tasking: being disrespectful and making a nuisance of oneself. In keeping with the spirit of the problem, many people have mastered the ability to do both at once.

Currently, the instrument of choice is the cellular telephone. All one has to do is to ignore the person accompanying one, which is disrespectful, and to speak loudly enough to constitute a nuisance to bystanders. The popularity of this has led the offended to make the mistake of blaming the technology, instead of the users.

But any appliance or otherwise innocent object will serve just as well--a television set kept on when there are visitors, a book open at the dinner table, a snack at a lecture. Anything used to demonstrate that a person or an occasion is not worthy of one's apparent concentration turns into an object of rudeness.

That is not to say that one must always devote total concentration to the matter at hand. Miss Manners did promise that undetected violations wouldn't count. And they are especially protected against detection if no technology is involved. Doesn't anyone remember how to daydream?

Dear Miss Manners:

Without much advance notice, I found myself wanting to send a congratulatory message to a person being honored in a military ceremony. Telegraphing is hopeless--they would only guarantee delivery in one to three days.

I wound up faxing, which the planners said would be all right. But suppose I wanted to send a message to a just-married couple at their wedding reception. How are people doing that these days? Faxes just don't seem to have quite the mystique of a telegram.

You mean like the suspense of wondering who had died? Or the challenge of figuring out the meaning when it didn't make any sense because the sender had left out key words to save money?

Miss Manners misses this, too, but she considers the fax not a bad substitute. We shall be looking back upon it nostalgically when those being honored see no reason to park their cell phones and pagers, and can be reached directly during such festivities.

Dear Miss Manners:

For the second time in as many months, I have been informed by a local doctor's office (different doctors' offices on the two occasions) that my appointment "has been changed." Not "We regret to inform you that Dr. Schmoe will be unable to keep the appointment that you had; can you come in at 4 on Friday instead?" but "Your new appointment is at 4 on Friday."

I don't know about you, but the way they have presumed to word that message makes me feel greasy all over. It is important to me that an appointment is negotiated between the patient and the doctor's office, not assigned by the latter. All of us have other things we have to do besides suiting a doctor's convenience.

Three questions: 1. Do you agree that the doctor's office is unnecessarily rude? 2. Has this rudeness already spread all over the country? 3. Will you please tell them to cut it out?

1. Yes. 2. Yes. 3. Yes.

(c) 1999, Judith Martin