Boston residents can be tenacious when it comes to snow. Try moving someone’s space saver — often a safety cone, but just as often an old lawn chair or kitchen chair — after they’ve cleared a parking space in South Boston and all havoc can break loose. It got so contentious over the past years that the city now warns residents that space savers must be removed within 48 hours after a snow emergency has ended.
The city is even tougher about homeowners clearing the sidewalks around their houses. Snow must be cleared from the sidewalks within three hours after snow has stopped falling. Fines can range from $50 to $150 per day for each day snow is not removed.
A reader we’re calling Khione who is a long-time Boston resident is familiar with the city’s snow fines. She also writes that she’s familiar with the fines the city imposes for allowing weeds from your yard to creep over into the street, but that’s a different season. Khione wrote to ask what the right thing to do was when she knew a neighbor who owns a home a couple of houses down was out of state for a family funeral and wasn’t likely to return in time to clear snow off her walk in the requisite time permitted.
“She knew the snow was coming,” Khione writes. “And she let me know that she had hired someone to clear the walk in front of her house for her.”
After the snow fell, Khione cleared her own walks, but noticed her neighbor’s walk remained uncleared. Figuring the person the neighbor hired might have several houses to clear out, Khione retired to her living room with a book and a nice cup of tea.
“The next morning, I looked out and saw that her walk still wasn’t clear,” wrote Khione. “She had paid someone to do the work, but it clearly wasn’t getting done. Should I feel obligated to clear the walk for her since I know she can’t do it herself?”
Obligated? Absolutely not. Khione is obligated to clear her own walk, which she did. Her neighbor is obligated to make sure her own walk gets cleared if she wants to avoid a possible fine.
But there are times when choosing to do something only because we are obligated to do it doesn’t sit right. It just doesn’t feel like enough. Sure, no one will fine Khione if her neighbor’s walk isn’t cleared. But if Khione cares about her neighbor, knows she is out of town for a family funeral and also believes the neighbor’s claim of having tried to meet her clearing obligations, it would be kind to take the time to clear her walk for her.
Khione doesn’t have to clear her neighbor’s walk. She doesn’t have to be concerned that her neighbor might get a fine. But if she cares about her neighbor and wants to make the walks clear enough for everyone in the neighborhood to pass, then the right thing is to grab her shovel and clear her neighbor’s walk. I’m not suggesting the tea might taste even better for having done a neighbor a favor, but her book and tea will be waiting for her after she is done.
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 www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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