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Dear Miss Manners: A close friend has lupus, affecting her skin and connective tissues. Lately, it has manifested itself in large, reddish-purple blotches on her arms and legs, which resemble blood bruises.

Total strangers draw her aside from her husband while the two of them are grocery-shopping, in order to inquire if she needs help getting out of "that monster's clutches." While waiting in line at the bakery, she noticed a man staring intently at her and grew increasingly nervous. Finally, he departed, brushing past her and thrusting a crumpled bit of paper into her hand - it offered a name, address and phone number where she was advised to seek "nutritional counseling."She finds these experiences unpleasant and embarrassing. One wants to do all one can to help, but one frequently gets the feeling that misguided altruism causes more problems than it solves.

Can you give us some guidelines for tactfully offering assistance to the disabled/handicapped - or perhaps more to the point, for judging whether or not any help is needed? Likewise, how about some tips for those who are constantly on the receiving end on ways to handle such offers graciously and how to refuse them, if no help is wanted?

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners really must stop going around saying that the most interesting conflicts in life are not between good and evil, but between competing goods.

Intellectually, this is quite true, but practically, those problems are ever so much harder to solve.

This is an interesting case in point, where we have two virtuous imperatives:

1. Rush to the aid of strangers in danger.

2. Mind your own business.

That the first is a rule of morals, as well as of manners, does not automatically give it precedence over what everybody else except Miss Manners would probably call "mere etiquette."

This is not just trade loyalty on her part. A crude sense of self-righteous morality has encouraged too many people to go around making others miserable. Those who believe that the moral rule of "Always tell the truth" obliterates the manners rule of "Do not hurt other people's feelings" are running loose, insulting everyone in sight, and feeling proud of themselves for doing it.

Miss Manners does believe that imminent danger temporarily suspends the need to respect other people's sovereignty and privacy, on the part of anyone who can provide real help. She just insists on strict definitions of "danger" and "help" before making that sacrifice of etiquette.

People who are being beaten or mugged, or are teetering over cliffs or stranded in the ocean are clearly in immediate physical danger, and ought to be rescued by anyone able to do so. But if one cannot actually help, then the etiquette rule of minding one's own business prevails - for example, someone who sees the victim of an accident lying on the street but receiving adequate medical attention ought to turn away instead of hanging around to gape, even if assuming a sympathetic expression.

But let's talk about less-clearly eminent danger. What about people who might be endangering their own health by smoking? Or through overweight, which could have either behavioral or non-behavioral causes?

Are outsiders likely to be able to tell them something they don't already know and which they would be influenced by hearing?

For that matter, what about people who look depressed? Can you tell the difference, on a strange face, between looking depressed and looking sad? Or looking sad and looking thoughtful? And even if you could accurately spot serious depression, what real help can a stranger provide?

Miss Manners brings all this up to demonstrate the perils of making easy assumptions about people, especially strangers, being in danger - and even glibber assumptions that providing obvious suggestions is enough of a help to compensate for the certain damage caused by embarrassing interference.

Had those would-be helpers you describe observed a lady being struck, they would be right, even heroic, to interfere. But it strikes Miss Manners as too much of a leap to diagnose bruises - which could have any of a number of causes - as definitively being malnutrition, or evidence of her having been beaten by her husband, and then to declare an emergency that justifies humiliating them both.

She admits that it is not an easy call. Just because Miss Manners deplores the kind of righteous busybodyness that is rampant just now, does not mean that she does not also have a horror of the callousness that used to be known as "not wanting to become involved" in the obvious emergencies of others.

The response to mistaken altruism should be firm enough to discourage further inquiry. Your friend should say clearly, "Thank you, but I'm afraid you have seriously misunderstood the situation," take her husband's arm, and turn away.

Should her would-be helper attempt to run after her and offer the diagnosis that she is in denial, she will know that he is no altruist, but a classic busybody.