Sunday, June 30, 2024

Should you decline politician’s handouts?

Should you take promotional materials for something you have no interest in?

In early June, a reader we’re calling Nadine was walking along the route for an annual parade that has been honoring her town for more than a century. There were marching bands, dance troupes, politicians, clowns and floats from assorted community businesses and not-for-profit organizations.

The parade is an event Nadine enjoys. It’s a chance to see old neighbors and join them in celebrating where they live. Rather than find a place to stand or sit and watch the parade pass by, Nadine likes to walk along the route since it gives her a chance to see more people than if she stayed in one place.

Organizations regularly hand out imprinted tchotchkes to onlookers ranging from balloons to plastic hand clappers. Small pieces of candy are tossed to children along the route. One business along the parade route set up a table to distribute bottles of water to parade participants and viewers. Nadine typically enjoys taking it all in.

But this year, Nadine noticed that far more politicians were handing out printed materials as they marched. Glossy cards with candidate bios. Typed documents laying out the politicians’ positions on various issues. Cards with information on how to donate to the campaigns. In retrospect, Nadine’s not certain whether there was far more of such materials being handed out to the crowd. The volume of paper being offered her as she walked past the politicians just seemed to be more than typical.

Nadine took the materials offered to her and as she continued to walk she deposited most of them in any trash receptacle she could find. “I wasn’t interested in most of the candidates since I already knew who I’d be supporting,” wrote Nadine. “But I didn’t want to be rude by refusing to take what they were handing out.”

Nadine now wonders if she was wrong not to decline the material she knew she didn’t want. “I was just going to throw it out,” she wrote. “It seems such a waste.” But she also doesn’t want to insult those giving out the papers by refusing them. So what should she have done?

If Nadine knew she was simply going to throw out the materials being tossed her way, then declining the offer of them would have been the right thing to do. It’s not rude to indicate you don’t want something. It might be rude to start shouting all the things you loathe about a particular candidate when approached by them or a supporter, but there’s nothing rude or wrong with simply saying no to something you don’t want.

While campaigning is a necessary evil for any elected official, the right thing for any politician would be to limit the amount of waste created by trying to distribute far more materials than are necessary. Supporting the community and getting a candidate’s name in front of parade onlookers might be enough to support all those materials that are likely to end up on voters’ doorsteps anyway. Both candidates and voters should appreciate any effort to reduce waste.

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, emeritus, 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


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