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Does breaking a pay-it-forward chain at a drive-through window make me a bad person?

Someone in front of me paid for my doughnut and coffee. I didn’t do the same. Plus, e-mail and announcement protocols.

Do you have a situation you need some help with? Send your questions to Miss Conduct.

Recently, I got a coffee and doughnut at a drive-through and was surprised and delighted to be told the person ahead of me had paid for me. I waved vigorously out the window, and wondered who could have done such a nice thing. I told my husband later and he asked if I had then paid for the person behind me. I said no. He told me I had “broken the chain.” Is this a thing? Now I feel bad!

A.K. / Shrewsbury

It is a thing! But it’s a stupid thing. This kind of “paying it forward” — random acts of kindness toward a stranger — works on the honor system. The coffee-buyer or toll-payer hopes that the recipient of their boon will, themselves, gift some unsuspecting stranger in the near future.

Some people will do so immediately, paying for the next person in line. But this removes the delightful surprise factor and replaces it with tedious expectation. You’re no longer increasing joy, only inefficiency. Not to mention the awkwardness if someone in the chain happens to be ordering for the entire office. Better to pay the gift forward in time, than backward in the drive-through lane.


My sister e-mailed over 20 people, saying she was too busy for personal e-mails or Zoom chats. She expressed concern that she hadn’t heard from some of us (so why didn’t she reach out personally?). I was put off by the tone and did not respond. I’ve gotten similar e-mails from friends who are “too busy” for personal e-mails but want everyone to know how they are. My inclination is to not bother with a reply, since the sender’s message is clear. Is that rude?


W. J. / Cambridge

What takes the edge off for you, W.J.? Meditation? Forest bathing? CrossFit? Painting by numbers (my personal obsession)? Whatever it is, go do some. Then take a few extra deep breaths and tap into your compassion. The past year has been social hell for everyone. No one is insulting you by including you in a mass e-mail. If you’ve never known the shame and stress of having to scroll down to get through your unread messages and e-mails, or the soul-killing paradox of feeling alone and unloved, but too exhausted and anxious to reach out ... well, then I envy you. This year has been kinder to you than to many. Be gentle to others in return.

We’d like to send announcements for our son’s high school graduation. We don’t want gifts, there’s no big party, we’re just proud and a little old fashioned. Is there a way to do this without the awkward “no gifts, please?”

J.P. / Boston

An announcement doesn’t carry with it the expectation of a gift to begin with! The polite response is a congratulatory message in return. If some people would like to celebrate your son’s accomplishment with a gift, I think you should let them. Your son missed out on so much this year, it might make some friends or family happy to be generous.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.