Sunday, January 04, 2009


As always at the turn of the year, it's time to reassess the past 12 months -- which, for me, means to reconsider a handful of columns that made some readers wonder, "What were you thinking?"

Four columns in particular drew responses that prompted me to revisit some of the issues therein.


Back in March I advised Jennifer Schwanke of Columbus, Ohio, that she had done the right thing by deciding not to use the coupons that were given her for purchasing a freezer, after she had decided to return the freezer. The coupons provided discounts at various area food stores.

Laurie Marshall, owner of Kelly's Coffee and Fudge Factory in Anaheim, Calif., and Rachael Ritchie, owner of GoodFella's Pizza in Athens, Ohio, both took me to task for missing the retailer's point of view. Coupons are meant to draw business, they pointed out, and the stores that issued the coupons don't care whether or not she kept the freezer.

"I am struggling to get people in my door," Marshall wrote. "Using the coupon would get her into my store when she might not otherwise come in."

Ritchie and Marshall are correct, and I was wrong. As long as the retailer from whom Schwanke almost bought the freezer attached no strings to use of the coupons, using them would be perfectly fair. Nobody would suffer for it, and she and the food stores might both benefit.


A reader was concerned that, when their trash can was filled, her husband was putting their excess trash into the trash can of their neighbor, who has unused space. The neighbor had noticed, grown irate and eventually expressed her displeasure by depositing the garbage atop the husband's car.

In May I told my reader that her husband was wrong, and that he should seek permission before placing his excess trash in his neighbor's barrels.

"This is ridiculous," one reader wrote. "What difference does it make to the woman if he puts trash in her trash to be picked up? It's ludicrous that she gets upset."

Trash pickup seems to trigger vehement emotions among my readers. I had another 2008 column relating to this subject -- concerning an overzealous trash collector who made off with a reader's recyclables -- and it too drew some passionate responses.

In this case, though, I have to stick with my original response. I agree that the neighbor overreacted, but she was right to resent the husband's trash deposit. Her trash cans are not public wastebaskets and, in any case, many municipalities prohibit the depositing of household trash in public wastebaskets. They're her cans, so she gets to decide what goes in them. If he wanted to do the right thing, the husband should have asked permission.


"You'd have to be pretty dense not to pick up on the humor of the Ikea ads that poke fun at shoppers mistakenly thinking that they are taking advantage of what are permanently low prices," wrote Charlie Seng of Lancaster, S.C. "Your reader who was annoyed by the ad is a person looking to be annoyed."

I found the ad amusing, but wondered if Ikea had missed the boat by not considering having a consumer in the ad argue with the clerk that she had rung up a price that was too low. This would have shone a light on customers who try to be honest, instead of on those who try to get away with something.

I don't believe my reader missed the humor of the ad, any more than I did. I think that serious points can be made through humor, however, and I'd have liked to see Ikea work harder to do the right thing in its ads.


Finally, in August a reader in Cypress, Calif., wondered if it would be wrong to pick a lemon or two from a tree that hangs over the fence of a nearby house and onto the nearby sidewalk. Her husband had told her that it would be wrong. She wasn't so sure.

I felt that the right thing to do would again involve getting permission from the tree's owner.

Gerald Boyden of Anaheim, Calif., was among a number of readers taking issue with my response.

"That fruit is considered to be residing `in the public domain,"' Boyden wrote. "It belongs to anyone who cares to claim it. There is no violation of ethics involved."

I noted in the original column that there was nothing wrong with helping oneself from a legal point of view, because Cypress has no ordinance against picking overhanging fruit. But what's legal is not always what's ethical, and most of the time ethical behavior requires more than simply not violating the law.

The law may not take cognizance of the fact that the tree has been raised, watered, nourished, tended and maintained by its owner, not by passers-by. Ethical considerations do take that fact into account, however, so I still think that the right thing is to ask the owner's permission. Legalities aside, it's the civil and fair thing to do, and therefore it's the ethical choice to make.

I know my readers will continue to do the right thing by sharing their wisdom with me by e-mailing me at as the new year progresses.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

We have a neighbor who occasionally deposits garbage overflow into our container on pick up day. This makes my wife crazy; Me not so much. The only irritant comes from the thought that they're always trying to get away with something or get off without doing something. But I must add that I love leaving our bulk goodies on the curb to be picked up because one of my neighbors is a pack rat and 60% of my bulk garbage never makes it to the curb.

Regarding Ikea; My prescription is to develop a better sense of humor and refraining from taking yourself seriously. It's called humor, and though not everyone is equipped with enough of an ego to realize that it's not a jab at them. Detach. Not quite sure how Ikea wedges its way into the realm of ethics......

I'm glad to see you rethought your position on the coupons. Retailers like to eat, too. And, I believe those coupons are offered at the expense of the retailer, so if anyone would have the say over who used them, I'd expect it would be them.

Anonymous said...

I just had to respond to the reader who said that the woman who found the IKEA ads annoying "was looking for something to be annoyed about". That statement is so wrong on so many levels. The IKEA ads are beyond annoying, they are morally and ethically wrong as far as I am concerned. They glorify cheating, stealing and lying and I will not shop there anymore because of this ad. Am I always morally and ethically in the right? Of course not, I'm human. Do I object to having "ethically-challenged" advertisements thrown in my face? You bet I do. I no longer have children at home but if I did I would probably find that I would have to explain why that ad is objectionable. I would do this after I changed the channel!
To a certain extent it is ads and TV shows with themes like this that have contributed to an unethical atmosphere in the world today. Is everything we do that is unethical also unlawful? Of course not but do want to have a citizenry that only lives by what is unlawful and forget about what is morally and ethically the right thing to do? Look around you and I think you will find that a great number pf people in this world live like that. It is a "what's in it for me?" and "where's mine?" and "me first!" and "I will do anything to get it!" world. How sad.
I read your column in the OC Register

Barbara Riddle
Corona, CA

Anonymous said...

In your column you stated that the neighbor's trash cans "aren't public wastebaskets." In Columbus, Ohio, and many other cities, residents are provided with one trash can by the city (additional cans can be purchased). Regardless of the number of cans you have, all are emptied by the company contracted by the city. Therefore, it would seem that the cans are "public wastebaskets."

I have never put trash in a neighbor's can, but have thought about it. We have a family of six, while several of our neighbors are couples. Since the trash pickup is included as part of our taxes, it would seem that anyone could fill them once they've been taken to the curb without infringing on someone else's property.

Angie Bilbrey,
Columbus, Ohio