Sunday, April 17, 2022

Do three wrongs make a right?

 Deciding who is more wrong or the most wrong when all are engaged in behaviors that are wrong can be a challenge. But that’s what a reader I’m calling Thalia would like to know.


Thalia wrote that she was excited to be returning to the theater to watch the live performance of a play for the first time in more than two years. She had been a regular theater-goer prior to many venues shutting down or going virtual during the pandemic and was eager to return now that she had the chance.


“I was enjoying the play, but toward the end of the first act the glare from someone’s phone distracted me," Thalia wrote. Apparently, a woman sitting a few rows in front and to the left of Thalia was on her phone.


“The man next to the woman finally pulled his mask down and told her sternly to turn the phone off," she wrote. "She kept her head down and ignored him.” After audible tsk-tsks from the man, the first act ended and the woman with the phone left her seat.


Soon, the man returned to where he was sitting with an usher. “They looked like they were waiting for the woman to return so the usher could talk to her,” wrote Thalia. “But the whole time they were waiting, the man didn’t have his mask on!”


To get into the theater, everyone had to show their vaccination cards, and they were told masks were required. They were also asked to silence their phones and refrain from using them during the performance.


“While they were waiting, the usher never asked the man to put his mask back on,” wrote Thalia.


A phone-using woman, a maskless man, and an un-enforcing rules usher.


“Who was most in the wrong here?” asked Thalia.


Let’s start with who did the right thing here.


The man was right to ask the woman not to use her phone during the performance. Rather than ignore him, she could have told him it was an emergency call – if it was – something Thalia believes might have been the case since the woman didn’t return for the second act. The usher was right to return with the man so he could remind the woman not to use her phone during the performance.


But each player in this performance could have done better. If the woman received an emergency call, the right thing would have been to leave the theater to take the call in the lobby. The right thing for the man would have been to keep his mask on while lodging his complaint, not just because you lose some credibility when complaining about a rule-breaker while you are breaking the rules yourself, but because it was an effort by the theater to keep all attendees as safe as possible. The usher would have been doing the right thing by reminding the man to wear his mask.


If each had taken a moment to do the right thing, the disruption to others could have been avoided. Other than that, Thalia wrote that she thoroughly enjoyed the production.


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 to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


No comments: