DEAR MISS MANNERS: I had back surgery several months ago, and my recovery is expected to be long. I have needed to use a walker and now a cane for assistance.

I am shocked at the number of complete strangers who have come up to me and made comments such as, “Why are you using that?” (pointing to the walker), “Is that permanent or temporary?” and “What’s wrong with you?”

While a rude reply is very tempting, I know that’s not correct. I usually ignore them, but what is the correct response to these buffoons?

GENTLE READER: That is a formidable challenge that you are facing -- thinking up a reply to “Why are you using that?” that doesn’t sound sarcastic.

Miss Manners tried practicing the most straightforward answers:

“I’m using it to walk. It’s a walker.”

“Oh, it’s just temporary until I can find one of those antique canes with the silver tops and concealed weapons.”

“Wrong? Is there something wrong I can help you with?”

Oh, dear. But even before she slipped off the straightforward path, Miss Manners noticed that her tone did not suggest that these people were being as friendly and compassionate as they no doubt think themselves. Perhaps you can do better.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Jenny and I are older divorced women. I have no family; she is like a sister and is among the single and married friends who invite me to spend the holidays with their families.

I was Jenny’s only local friend to attend the out-of-town service and wake for her own sister. At my table, Jenny’s nephew-in-law assumed a truly nasty expression and asked: “Do you and Jenny live together? No? Do you live close to each other? No? But you travel together? How did you meet?”

I ignored the innuendo and just answered straight. However, I wish I had a good comeback to “out” him for his rudeness! I felt like saying, “If we were lesbians, as you seem to imply, wouldn’t we be a great couple!”

GENTLE READER: Suppose you had, and the nephew-in-law had replied in a loud voice, “Lesbians? That never occurred to me”?

That’s the trouble with innuendo: It is deniable. Nasty look or not, his questions were within the realm of common social nosiness, which he could defend as an attempt to show interest and start a conversation.

He did not ask about your sex life. It is you who would have opened that subject. It is as though one had asked a straight lady and gentleman if they were married — which is somewhat intrusive — and they had responded that they are not sleeping together, which is way too revealing for polite conversation.

All the same, Miss Manners recognizes that you want to squelch the speculation that may well have prompted those questions. You could do this by saying, “We’re a couple of friends, but not a couple.” If you wanted to tweak him, you already did, simply by answering the surface questions with no further information to satisfy his presumed curiosity.

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site,, where you can send her your questions.

2012, by Judith Martin

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