Sunday, August 20, 2006


I get many questions from readers that fall more into the category of etiquette than into ethics.

Lynn LaBranche of Ontario, Canada, for example, wants to know if you should base a tip on the cost of a meal before taxes or including taxes. Traditionally it's calculated before taxes -- but that's a question that's more about etiquette than about my column's world of navigating between right and wrong.

Sometimes, however, the two overlap.

When C.C. of Montpelier, Vt., wrote to me about her experience waiting in line at a grocery store, at first I dismissed it as falling outside my purview. Upon further thought, however, I decided that the incident raises issues that get at how we deal fairly with others, regardless of who they are. How we choose to behave when we're together has "ethics" written all over it.

C.C., a woman in her 50s, was waiting in the express line at her grocery store behind two men about her age. Behind C.C. was an elderly woman.

"Along comes a pretty young girl with a loaf of bread," writes C.C. "Immediately the first man in line offers to let her go ahead of him."

This upset C.C., because there were three other people behind "Mr. Chivalrous," as C.C. calls him.

"Before showing his gallantry," she writes, "he should have asked us if it was OK."

It also bothered C.C. because the elderly woman behind her was also buying only one item, and nobody had offered to let her go ahead.

"Was I wrong," she asks, "to think that he should have checked with the rest of the line first?"

No. If Mr. Chivalrous had been sitting on a bus and wanted to give up his seat to someone who had come on after him, that might have been acceptable. I'd like to think that he would give it up to someone who needed it more than he did, but that's his choice.

Bus riders don't generally queue up waiting for the next available seat, however. Supermarket shoppers do wait for the next available cashier.

Mr. Chivalrous did not have the right to allow someone, no matter how young or pretty, to cut in front of him, unless he was the only one in line. C.C. is absolutely correct that the right thing for him to have done was to check with the others in line to see if they minded. For her part, Ms. Pretty Young Thing should have had the good sense simply to move to the end of the four-person line in the first place.

But in suggesting that it would have been fairer if Mr. Chivalrous had also yielded to the elderly woman who also had only one item to buy, C.C. goes off the rails. The issue is not whom Mr. Chivalrous allows to cut in or how young, old, attractive or unattractive they may be, but rather that he is giving away not only his own time but also that of the people in line behind him.

That's where ethics comes into play. Because he can't give away something that isn't his, Mr. Chivalrous should check with those in line before letting anyone cut in. The age of the person doesn't matter -- Mr. Chivalrous still has a responsibility to be fair to his fellow customers.

When I first read C.C.'s e-mail, it struck me that everyone knows the right choices to make in forming queues. But, judging by similar reader e-mails and my own experience, I'm not so sure.

So here's my advice: Be fair and considerate. And shop nice.


Anonymous said...

I recently had a "line waiting" experience in which I was accused of behaving unfairly. Since I consider myself a fair and honest person I was a bit hurt by the accusation and wanted to ask your opinion of this situation.

My son recently went to his high school registration. The registration consisted of 8 different "stations" in which the student turns in forms, gets his/her schedule, has a student ID photo taken, etc. The longest lines were at the last two stations where athletes had their blood pressure taken and (the last line) were seen by a sports physician for a brief physical. I had my son go into the line for the blood pressure and I went to the line for the sports physician. When he came out from having his blood pressure checked he joined me in the physician line - far ahead of where he would be if had I not stood in place for him. This angered one of the parents waiting in the physician line - her argument being that it was not fair to the kids who came without parents. My theory was that since I was not getting a physical and had waited in line - my son taking my place didn't delay or cause anyone else to have to wait any longer than they normally would have. Our discussion drew the attention and opinions of several surrounding parents - equally divided as to the ethical nature of my time-saving plan. (I will note that several parents waiting in the blood pressure line with their kids -rightly or wrongly- immediately moved over to the physician line --- seeing this wasn't a bad idea.)

What do you think?

Kathy Chiero

Jeffrey L. Seglin said...

Yours is a terrific and challenging variation on the line-cutting theme. In some instances where placeholders stand on line for others, such as when one member of a party buys tickets for seats in a theater, movie house, or sports stadium, there seems to be no foul since the same number of tickets would have been purchased regardless of how many people stood on line. You could also make the same argument when couples stand together on line in a grocery or department store and one runs off to get a last-minute item they remembered they wanted.

But your example strikes me as falling more into the gray area since I don't know all the details. If everyone was allowed to use placeholders (parents, siblings, or others) and this was made clear to the athletes lining up in various lines, then what you describe strikes me as fair game. But if the organizers didn't allow the practice, then it's off for everyone. What seems to have fallen down in your example is the role of the organizers who apparently stayed out of the issue and didn't establish the rules for anyone before the event.

Jeffrey Seglin

Anonymous said...

Mr Seglin:

In answer to your question: there is no official "line holding"
policy-although after this incident there may be next year :) I would say
everyone was 1) allowed to choose whether or not they accompanied their
students to the registration. It is typical that the younger/nondriving
students -Freshman/Sophomores have parents with them while the older/driving
students do not. And 2) Could do exactly what I did if they thought of it
and, I don't doubt, I was not the first to think of this.

Anonymous said...

Feedback regarding above referenced article:

Two items of note:

1) Why didn't CC offer (loud enough for others to hear) to let elderly woman go ahead of her to set an example to others in front of line? They would have most likely done the same.

2) it would have been OK for the man to let attractive woman (or anyone else for that matter) go ahead of him and everyone else IF he moved to back of the line.

Anaheim Hills, CA

Anonymous said...

1. Recent example of giving a 'cut' on super market line to good looking babe.

It would have been interesting if the 'gentleman' had given his place to the babe and then gone to the end of the line.

2. I recently entered local hospital on Tuesday for a procedure which took place on Wednesday with discharge scheduled for Thursday morning. But, the surgeon did not appear, and instead sent a proxy at 3 PM. Result: I paid an additional $50 for an additional hospital day, my HMO paid a big bunch for an additional full day, and my bed was rented out to a new patient on the same afternoon, giving the hospital double payment for the same day same bed. Ethical?

3. My wife and I read your column each week with interest and thoroughly enjoy your viewpoints.

Cordially, b j dennis

Jeffrey L. Seglin said...

Dear Mr. Dennis,

Double billing for same day, same bed? Charging you extra because of a delay you didn't cause?

Legal, maybe. But ethical? It doesn't strike me as so.