Sunday, April 07, 2019

We get by with a little help

I am not a mechanic. While I can replace a faucet, install an electrical outlet, or rebuild a sunporch (with the help of a much more talented son-in-law), I am simply no good when it comes to automobiles. Sure, I can change a rear lightbulb, but mostly I have little idea which pieces are decorative and which essential to making a car move.

I mention this not because I'm planning to make a global shift from writing about ethics to reporting on auto repair, but because it took a recent confrontation with the front end of my wife Nancy's car to be reminded of the kindness of strangers -- and also the resistance we sometimes have when help is offered.

While driving the car this past weekend, we noticed a thumping noise coming from under it. We pulled over and I got out to examine the underbelly of the beast. A piece of plastic -- which I later learned was called a "front bumper spoiler" -- had come loose. I tried snapping it back into place, but enough had already been ground away by the pavement that it didn't hold.

So I did what any amateur might do. I pulled into a Home Deport parking lot, went in and purchased the most extreme strength duct tape I could find, and returned to the parking lot to tape the dangling front bumper spoiler back into place.

It was then that a guy heading to his truck parked next to us asked if we needed any help. I first told him no since I didn't want to bother him and I had no idea if he knew any more than I did. But Nancy gave me the kind of look, which I knew meant that this guy couldn't possibly know any less than we did so I said, "We're just going to duct tape this up until we get it replaced."

"You know you can take that off with a couple of screws," he said. "There's a discount auto parts place up the street and you can easily replace it for short money."

We found the discount place buried deep in a nearby office park, walked in, and immediately realized how out of our element we were. Grizzled men in baseball caps were buying full bumpers. Others called out names of pieces we'd never heard of. When we got to the counter, we tried to tell a service representative what we needed and he tried to look it up on his computer. Then he asked one of the other service reps to go out to our car with us to see if the part he called up on his computer was the right one.

It wasn't, but then he found the right one and another service rep came outside and told me how to remove the screws and replace the front bumper spoiler. (Yes, that's how I learned what it was called.)

There's no ethical dilemma here. But there is a lesson that when you are lost and people offer you a hand, the right thing is not to wave them off. Instead, it is wise to take a moment to recognize that there are others who might genuinely want to help without expecting anything in return other than knowing they could make a fellow drivers life a little easier. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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