Miss Conduct

Advice on not becoming the manners police

A note on not looking for rudeness everywhere. Plus, soliciting donations for the office candy bowl.


>At the dentist’s office, a patient was checking out while I sat reading the newspaper. She was having a hard time getting her next appointment into her hand-held. She finally asked the receptionist,

“Do you mind if I make a quick call?’’ I piped up, “You should ask me, too,’’ feeling as if I were part of the furniture as far as she was concerned. I pointed out that her car might be a better place for the call. She looked at me as if I were the rudest person she had ever encountered. Wasn’t she the person being inconsiderate? 

A.F. / Chestnut Hill  

Perhaps, but you are part of the problem.

People often want me to get on some kind of bandwagon about how Society Is Going to Hell and Civility Is Dying, and both for reasons of principle and my mental health, I don’t usually accept their invitation for a ride. (Except on the Festivus holiday, December 23, during which Miss Conduct’s blog welcomes the traditional Airing of Grievances.) Your question, though, makes me want to be the drum majorette of the We Have Lost Our Way Parade.


What is your sense of being wronged here? That a person was confused and clumsy in public? You were reading a newspaper, presumably not stuck behind her in line. What kind of attention do you feel she owed you? Why did you feel entitled to chastise a stranger in public and still feel that you are somehow aggrieved?

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Did it occur to you that the call might have been relevant to the appointment? That maybe she was calling her spouse to make sure the kids had a ride back from soccer practice or asking a co-worker to cover her shift?

Part of living in a civil society is not inconveniencing others. And another part is cutting people some slack when, despite their best efforts, they do inconvenience you. All the world’s a stage, and everyone flubs their lines or falls into the orchestra pit from time to time. We hope to be treated with compassion when we do.

I’ve had it with you. Go to your room and think about what you’ve done. And don’t come out until you’re ready to behave.

>My office has volunteers, and we leave a bowl of candy out for them. Co-workers from different departments often help themselves to the candy. Visitors can be nice, but the candy budget is small. Is there a polite way to ask for donations? A humorously worded sign? I don’t want to shake people down, but if they are taking candy twice a day, every day, is a nudge to contribute so out of line?

C.L. / Boston


Of course you can ask for contributions. Put up whatever kind of sign fits with your office culture. Make sure you add a picture of someone admired in your industry or cultural demographic, with the caption “So-and-So Is Watching You.’’ People are more likely to be honest if they are being watched, an unconscious mechanism so strong that even a photocopied picture of eyes tends to increase compliance with rules and regulations. Beware of deploying such powerful social science in the workplace, though. If your in-house graphics are too good, you might wind up on the receiving end of more embarrassing confessions than you know what to do with.

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

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