Sunday, June 26, 2011

Speaking up to bad public behavior

We've all witnessed bad behavior in public.

Dave H., a reader from Sacramento, Calif., is perplexed about an appropriate response to the many such incidents of "boorish behavior" in public he has witnessed.

A few weeks ago, just before he pulled up to a stoplight at an intersection, the passenger-side door of a car in the lane next to him opened up. The woman inside the car reached out and emptied a bag full of garbage onto the street -- fast-food wrappers, banana peels, tissues, and "who knows what else," he recalls.

"I gave her my best look of stern disapproval," Dave H., writes. "But as we sat there waiting for the light to change, I wanted to do something else, perhaps a short teachable moment lecture, but I could think of nothing."

Dave has had similar feelings in the past when witnessing other bad public behavior such as people talking in a movie theater or people sneaking unpaid samples of fruit or nuts at the market.

"When one observes these types of behaviors," Dave asks, "is it ethical to allow such incidents to go by without comment?"

My neighbor, Ray, wouldn't likely think so.

Last summer, when we were at the movies, a distracting glow emanated from several seats in front of us. It took a while to become clear that the glow was the light coming from a young man's cellphone on which he was texting.

Many moviegoers noticed, but it was Ray who got up, tapped the fellow on the shoulder, and asked if he could take his phone outside the theater if he needed to use it so the rest of the audience wouldn't be disturbed. The young man slunk down in his seat and turned off his phone for the rest of the movie.

Ray wasn't aggressive in approaching the texter. But he refused to allow one person to disrupt the rest of the audience without saying something to the disrupter.

Ethics is "how we behave when we decide we belong together," write Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers in their book, A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1996). Dumping trash onto public streets and texting in the movie theater are not widely accepted ways of "belonging together." Each incident reflects unethical behavior.

In addressing the texter in the movie theater, Ray acted ethically to address the wrong-headed behavior. But those who didn't speak up were not wrong, just as Dave H. was not wrong in not giving his litterer a "teachable moment."

When faced with many possible right choices, the challenging part of doing ethics comes in figuring out what is the best right thing to do. Giving a stern look at the litterer may have been the best right choice Dave H. could muster at the time. Given a few minutes to reflect -- as Ray had time to do after witnessing the texter's glow -- Dave might have come up with an even stronger right response.

He did the right thing though by signaling his disapproval to the litterer. Sure, the litter remained on the road and the likelihood that the culprit will strike again is strong, but as long as there are people who are willing to address inappropriate behavior as it occurs, there's hope that the majority of us will continue to refrain from boorish behavior . . . and recognize it when we see it.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Grandma Bee said...

One thing to remember when we consider speaking up: are we being kind or officious? Ray's example illustrates kindness: he just quietly tapped the offender on the shoulder and said his piece without making a big fuss. I have a tendency to be officious, and my voice can cut concrete. So I have to stop, make a careful effort to control my voice, and smile when I say my piece.

Joe said...

In these days, the fear of retribution can deter one from acting or speaking out against bad public behavior. I've had several occasions where I'd love to tell a guy in an adjacent car, playing his rap at 120 db with his windows down, to cease and desist. But I knew he probably wouldn't understand me, and if he did, I might get shot. People who don't give a hang for others, can usually be expected to reply with belligerence . . unless you are exhibiting obvious signs of size or authority. I have neither.

Anonymous said...

As correct as I believe Jeffrey's comments to be in regard to the ethics and rightness of speaking up, even in a low key way, to the offender, in these days of people not caring if they hurt you, or even worse, discretion is the better part of valor and unless you can correct the bad behavior with little or no danger to yourself, keep your trap shut!

Charlie Seng

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