The guy had helped me out when I really needed it, but now he was making me nervous.

I'd talked to a small, local moving company about a month ago about getting my stuff out of my apartment and into a storage locker for the next six months. A couple of days before the scheduled move, when I called the company to reconfirm the pickup time, the telephone rang and rang in an apparently empty office. I called other moving companies, but they were booked. It was the end of the month and I had to move. I was getting desperate.So when I finally found someone who said he'd do it, I was relieved. But then he made a couple of comments on the phone that were vaguely threatening and definitely unprofessional.

When I gave the mover my address, he said, "You're very trusting." And after I didn't answer the phone at my old apartment the next morning (I had already moved into my new one), he speculated (inappropriately and inaccurately) about where I might have been. "You picked a heck of a night to spend with your boyfriend," he leered.

He probably thought he was being friendly and witty, but actually he was being offensive and aggressive. Later he told me he'd be 21/2 hours late and put me down when I asked him why. I began to wonder whether he was legitimate. He certainly wasn't businesslike.

I'm not the type of person to suffer such nonsense silently. I've spent a lot of years working in male-dominated workplaces, including a stint in the construction trades in San Francisco, and know how to assert myself. But I couldn't bring myself to give the guy a verbal bust in the chops because, frankly, I couldn't risk alienating him. I needed him. And he had the power to do me some damage.

It's a situation women get into all the time. It doesn't matter how we regard ourselves. We can be independent, mature, intelligent, even fierce, but someone like a moving guy, or just any random stranger on the street, can provoke infuriating feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability.

So do we assert ourselves when we feel someone is insulting us - preserve our self-respect but make our lives more difficult? Or do we, as my mother advised so many years ago, just ignore it?

The dilemma pains me. "Ignore" means to pay no attention, but in reality, I focus all my attention on anyone whose comments make me wary because he just might be a predator who merits watching. In reality, to "just ignore it" means these guys get to say whatever they want with impunity. Even if I never look at them or acknowledge what they say, they know full well I hear them.

Like getting yelled at while exercising. What is it that makes men shout obscenities at female joggers? I finally refused to run through my downtown Salt Lake neighborhood because I got tired of the disgusting things I would hear. I used to run before dawn when I lived in Sacramento, and rude males would assail me from the darkness. I couldn't even see them - so how could they see me? It was a ridiculous situation that could have been funny if it weren't so threatening. I've been taunted by little boys no older than 8 or 9, and I wanted to grab them by the fronts of their little-boy jackets and yell, "Who taught you to do this? What makes you think it's all right to harass a woman older than your mother?" But of course I didn't. I just ignored them.

Every woman has a backlog of tales similar to mine. They might not be truly dangerous, but they are humiliating, spirit-squashing incidents that simply should never happen.

Do men have to deal with this? Would a businesswoman say to a potential customer what the moving guy said to me, or little girls hurl innuendoes at middle-aged men as they jog by?

So who is teaching them these things?

It's too easy to say there's just something wrong with men, or society. I know I, and women like me, contribute to the problem when we pretend to ignore the insults. It's a mistake to equate the behavior of an ignorant lout who yells at a jogger with that of a presumptuous businessman - one could be dangerous, but the other probably isn't. And it's a mistake to "ignore" some men's social clumsiness rather than figure out a way to correct their behavior, ideally with diplomacy.

If we can learn to do that, maybe they'll learn not to unnerve women who prefer to do business, or go about their business, on their own.