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Out of the Bag 

The helpful grocery clerk, the presumptuous sister, and the ex's cheating beau

Wednesday, Dec 7 2005
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Dear Social Grace,

A friend of mine says that I (an able-bodied, middle-aged female) should not take up the grocery store clerk's offer to carry my groceries to my car. I will accept that offer occasionally if I'm tired or if I've bought a lot of things. He says that this service should be accepted only by the elderly or handicapped. Furthermore, he says that if I do accept that service, I should tip the clerk who puts the groceries in the back of my van (easily accessible, no stooping required). I pride myself on being generous with waiters, taxi drivers, etc. But it never occurred to me to tip the grocery carry-out person. My friend says the clerks basically are providing this service "on their own time," since any time they spending taking out groceries will have to be made up later when they fulfill their stock-room duties. I can't imagine that a major grocery-chain manager could get away with such a draconian policy (making the clerks work overtime on stocking duties at no pay if they run out of time during their shift because they've spent too much time loading groceries into vehicles). What do you think? I certainly wouldn't want to exploit some hardworking bag boy or girl!

Thanks,
Jane Hickman

Dear Ms. Hickman,

You may, without guilt, take advantage of the carry-out service when it's offered. The store's management surely wants the service to be available to customers, and considers it a job duty of courtesy clerks -- who are not offering to carry your groceries solely because they're nice people. The sort of unpaid work your friend describes is illegal (he can check out the U.S. Department of Labor's helpful Web site for more information), and beyond one or two bad-apple corporations whose personnel-management practices are now being investigated, we needn't worry too much about indentured servitude in the grocery business. (You may have noticed that at some discount grocery stores, shoppers are not offered the carry-out service. Shoppers pay a bit more for groceries in stores with bag boys and girls, and part of that extra money goes toward paying those employees.)

And it is not customary to tip grocery-store clerks. (In fact, many grocery-store chains forbid employees from accepting tips -- but do feel free to phone up your favorite shop and ask about its policy.) That said, I might offer a couple of dollars to a clerk who had gone above and beyond: say, cheerfully loading a cart's worth of canned goods in a rainstorm.

Dear Social Grace,

My partner, my sister, and I had a very pleasant Thanksgiving dinner at a local restaurant. I had a gift certificate to the restaurant from my employer that covered a large portion of our bill. When the bill came to our table, my sister suggested that we deduct the amount of the gift certificate from the total and then split the difference three ways. My partner and I disagreed and said that the gift certificate constituted my total contribution (especially since it covered well more than a third of the total bill), and that the balance should be divided in half between the two of them. This is what we ended up doing. I'm just curious as to how Social Grace would have decided this situation.

Best regards,
E. Warren

Dear E. Warren,

There's a lot to say on the topic of gift certificates, but if you had located me on Thanksgiving Day and asked me to arbitrate, I would have had to be brief: For your purposes, there really is no difference between cash and a gift certificate. If it was understood that the three diners were going to pay for their own meals, then your sister's suggestion was rather presumptuous. And the solution you reached on your own displays a nice bit of generosity on your part. However, your sister may have been confused by the way you announced that you had a gift certificate. If one of my sisters phoned me and said, "I just got a gift certificate for Café Bistro -- would you like to join me for dinner?" I might reasonably assume that she was inviting me to share her windfall. In split-the-check situations, always be clear from the outset about how you imagine expenses being shared (and don't boast too much about the contents of your wallet, be it in bills or gift certificates).

Dear Social Grace,

My ex (we broke up a year ago) came by to get the rest of his furniture out of my house last week. He came with his new boyfriend. Things went smoothly -- friendly conversation, introduction to new boyfriend (live-in for six months now). The next day, I received an e-mail from the ex's new boyfriend. In the e-mail, he said he thought I was really cute and wouldn't mind fooling around with me -- and not to tell the ex about the e-mail. Of course, I declined his offer .... The "revenge" part of me (I kicked my ex out after I came home early from an out-of-town convention and found a nude man in my kitchen) wants to tell the ex what happened. The "nice guy" in me says let well enough alone. But if this guy is fooling around on my ex, maybe it would be the "nice guy" thing to tell him. What should I do?

Sign me,
"In a Predicament"

Dear Troubled Sir,

Nice people endeavor to keep their noses out of other people's business, try not to spread hurtful information (or possible misinformation), and aim for perfect discretion when it comes to past lovers and potential lovers. In short, a nice guy would stay as far as possible away from this little imbroglio. I suggest putting it entirely out of your mind.

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Social Grace

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