"Oh, look."

"No, no, don't look; you'll only encourage them."

This is the classic reaction whenever a group of ladies decides to appear bare-breasted in public for free. Everyone concerned would be disappointed if this twinned reaction did not occur. We all know the routine, because it happens more often than those employing toplessness as an shock tactic may realize.

Its purpose may be to proclaim sexual freedom or to protest the liberty of regarding nursing mothers sexually. It may be prompted by outrage or it may be prompted by exuberance. It may be done for the sake of art or for the sake of sport. It might be inspired by much thought or by much drink.

Miss Manners therefore recommends a polite "Excuse me, madam, but I wonder if you would be kind enough to interpret your symbolism for me." The preliminary tap on the shoulder to secure the lady's intention had best be omitted in this instance.

A recent outstanding example, which is to say one that took place before cold set in this winter (one assumes that this activity has its seasonal limitations), involved a team of female rugby players visiting Miss Manners's own innocent hometown, which is also known for being Our Nation's Capital. In front of Mr. Lincoln, who remained seated in his memorial without batting an eye, a number of the players removed their upper clothing.

This was not an illegal act. It seems that freedom from upper clothing is one of the freedoms permitted in the capital of the free world. Who knew?

Nevertheless, eyes (other than Mr. Lincoln's) were batted. As it happens, these were not on the faces of drivers-by, who ought to have kept their eyes on the road, nor of tourists, who ought to have kept theirs on the Gettysburg Address. They were on the faces of people connected with schools, notably including their own, and with their sport, notably including the organization governing rugby clubs.

The strongest condemnation in the modern vocabulary--"inappropriate"--was hurled at the offenders. In turn, they cited precedent, in the case of the triumphant soccer player who removed her shirt but not her underwear. When that didn't work, they sensibly put forth an apology.

Miss Manners can hardly be expected to defend toplessness, even on a hot day. But neither did she feel obliged to go on the attack, as the incident ran its natural course from "Isn't this fun?" to "No, we don't think so" to "Okay, then, we're sorry."

But then she heard people commenting that this was no different from what male athletes do, and that nothing more was revealed than would be at a nudist camp or topless beach. To Miss Manners, this reveals a shocking misunderstanding of the symbolism involved.

Symbolism being arbitrary by its very nature, societies vary in what they consider respectable and what not in the way of exposure. One needn't go back as far as the topless Minoans or even the wet-look Georgians to find our own symbolism challenged. Our Victorian predecessors mandated cleavage at the formal dinner table, while the gentlemen got their naughty thrills from illicit glimpses of ladies' ankles.

Nor is the amount of coverage the only factor. If you go to work in your pajamas you won't be indecently exposed. But then you probably won't be gainfully employed, either, for long. Context counts, which is why what you see on the beach is no excuse for seeing it on the streets.

Miss Manners recognizes that there are occasions when clothing standards, whatever they happen to be, should be challenged for the sake of reform, as when dear Amelia Bloomer freed us from getting our skirts entangled in our bicycle gears. She recognizes that there are those who wish to titillate or shock.

What she finds offensive is violating standards and then claiming to be surprised that people are offended.

Dear Miss Manners:

Imagine you made a friendly call to a relative during a respectable hour, and about five minutes into your conversation, your relative begins to make yawning noises between sentences. What would be the polite manner to ring off?

While many modern conventions of speech don't contribute much to our lives ("Have a good day" not being an improvement over "Good morning," nor "No problem" over "You're welcome"), there is one that Miss Manners loves, and it is just the one you need.

A few years ago, people who wanted to get off the telephone had to produce some variant of "I think I hear my mother calling me." Then it suddenly changed to "Well, I won't keep you," which is a marvel of tact and particularly apt in the situation you describe.

(c) 2000, Judith Martin