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Fender Bending 

Ethics in the neighborhood

Wednesday, Apr 18 2001
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Dear Social Grace,

Please tell me the ethical thing to do in this situation: I was a passenger in a friend's car, and he accidentally ran into the parked car of someone who lives on my street, leaving noticeable damage in the car's side. My friend didn't leave a note or his insurance information; we just drove away. I've had a niggling feeling of guilt ever since, because my car was "anonymously" damaged several years ago, and I was pretty pissed off about it.

The thing is, my friend is very down on his luck (he has no money at all and no job presently), and I wonder if maybe he doesn't have insurance or if his insurance would go up to a level he can't afford. So I'm not sure where my allegiance should be. Is it rude to turn a friend in for something like this?
Name Withheld by Request

Dear Madam or Sir,

Your letter presents a larger ethical question that we may want to examine first: Does poverty or personal misfortune excuse criminal (or even impolite) behavior? Etiquette is only one voice in the chorus of resoundingly negative responses.

But there's a lot of gray in this ethics-problem palette. Is it OK to steal food if that's the only way you can feed your starving children? Well, yes: In the grand scheme of things, a starving child looms large next to a stolen loaf of bread. Now, is it OK to steal (even indirectly, as in the situation you describe) to avoid increasing the cost of your car insurance? I hope you can see the difference -- and to be fair, it does sound as though your conscience has sounded an internal alarm.

An all-purpose "Right Thing to Do" is unavailable in this situation. While my advice-giving compatriots and I can give you guidelines -- and gentle nudges when necessary -- you and your good sense are often the only things that can determine what is right in a particular situation. From behind my glasses, it looks as though your friend owes your neighbor reparations. However, etiquette frowns on ratting out one's friends over what we can safely call a misdemeanor offense. (Were a person's life at stake, we'd be dealing with a different question.) And you may remember a recent caution against buttinskying ["Power to the People," March 28]; it's important to remember that you make this matter your business at a certain social risk. But if I were you, I'd make a concentrated effort to convince my friend to prove himself an honorable person -- the sort of person one wants to have as a friend. As you have been on the other side of this experience, you're sure to have some convincing arguments.

Dear Social Grace,

Several months ago, I met a guy in an online chat room. We've been e-mailing each other a lot and telephoning every now and again (he lives in Michigan). He says he's "in love" with me, but I've been trying to think of a way to end it because he's starting to give me the creeps. But he recently sent me a bracelet, which I bet cost him more than a couple hundred dollars, and I'm wondering how I can end things with him politely after receiving a gift like that, or if there is an amount of time I should wait before ending it.
Not in Love

Dear Loveless Madam or Sir,

Rather than answering the question you've asked me, I'm going to answer the question that perhaps you should have asked me: How does one return an inappropriate gift from a suitor? I'm afraid that you may not be able to have your bracelet and "end it," too.

Offering to return a gift is an honorable thing to do if you fear that the giver is operating under a misconception -- that you're in love with him, for example, or that giving gifts will, say, secure a presidential pardon. You can and should take this opportunity to clear up your beau's confusion about the nature of your relationship.

Here's how that might go: "Thank you so much for this extravagant gift, which I must return, with apologies." Then explain that the bracelet is more appropriate to a romantic relationship, which yours is not. And please, be gentle with him. When breaking up with a man, we should try to avoid the phrase "give me the creeps" if we can.

Dear Social Grace,

All of my life, I've struggled with shyness and self-consciousness -- people often think that I'm rude or stuck-up, when the truth is I just can't think of what to say in small-talk situations! Although I'm slowly beating my shyness, I'm terrible at chitchat. I'm always impressed by other people who can talk pleasantly to strangers or new acquaintances. I can't seem to do it. When I try, I always leave the situation feeling that I sound like a crazy woman. Do you have any pointers for achieving socially graceful chitchat?

Sincerely,
Socially Inept

Dear Inept Madam,

First, stop being so hard on yourself. We can't all be Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde, but life puts everyone into situations where chitchat is the polite -- if not the required -- thing to do. If you can convince yourself that your small talk needn't be momentous -- or even interesting, much of the time -- you might lose some of that fear that keeps you from speaking. Even Oscar must have spent some of his time blathering inanely about the weather.

There's more to conversation than the words and the subject matter: Much of it is nothing more than friendly noise. Like so much of etiquette, chitchat can demonstrate that we are willing, unthreatening participants in our environment. If you can cultivate your listening skills, people will think you an excellent conversationalist. Make the other person feel like Dorothy Parker: Prac-tice your appreciative laughter, encouraging questions, and short responses.

And please don't bother too much about what people think of you. Most strangers and new acquaintances are not thinking about you at all: They're thinking about themselves. Worrying that you sound "crazy" is usually a sure sign of sanity -- and eccentrics are usually the most interesting people to talk to anyway.

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Social Grace

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