Make us your home page
Tell Me About It | by Carolyn Hax

The courtesy cops are out in force

Make way for

the courtesy cop

Q: I was wondering how you felt about speaking up to strangers who commit minor but nagging offenses against common courtesy. Is a gentle public shaming still appropriate?

Almost every day, I encounter people who litter, block entrances while they talk on their cell phones, wantonly cut into lines. Last week I saw a man (not apparently homeless) urinating in the street in broad daylight on my own block, and said nothing. How do the bounds of public order get set and maintained, if not by people speaking up (respectfully) when those bounds are crossed?

Last week I turned around in an airplane seat and said politely but firmly to the woman behind me, who continued blathering on her cell phone even as the emergency video started playing, "You need to hang up now." She did.

I felt terrific. That leads me to wonder: What, if anything, should I say to the public urinator or the candy-wrapper-tosser?


A: I'm all for gentle public shaming, but only for those who don't know or care that they're committing an offense. Not that you've suggested this, but license to shame is often mistaken for license to take down everybody, even those who are clearly apologetic and/or overburdened. That's just high-road rage.

Even where civic shame is well deserved, it's important to navigate carefully between two boundaries: personal safety on one side, and personal nudg-ety on the other.

The former is obvious. A realistic calculation of your vulnerability has to precede anyone's decision to intervene. True for men and women, big and small. Remember, we're addressing only "minor" offenses here.

The latter boundary is fuzzier, but requires a similar, on-the-spot, gut calculation. Good choices: "Excuse me, the back of the line is here," to a proximate line-cutter, or "Excuse me, I think you dropped this" to trash-droppers.

Note the fig leaf of allowing for the possibility that the offense was accidental. Technically, that means it's not public shaming so much as public not-shaming-even-though-we-both-know-you're-so-busted.

The response from the offender may still be unprintable. But then you just say "Have a nice day," and pick up the trash yourself.

Speaking up works best if everyone does a little bit. When one person vows to take on every single nagging offense against common courtesy, his stance at that moment becomes antagonistic — and he becomes a nagging offense to common courtesy himself.

How does boyfriend

measure up?

Q: My boyfriend and I are the same height. He thinks he is short and doesn't like me to wear heels that make me the least bit taller. He doesn't say so, exactly, but he sulks if I try to wear them. Is it really my job to make sure he always is happy, or is it okay to be a "heel" once in a while?


A: Whether you wear flats when you'd prefer heels, or wear heels when you'd prefer a date who wasn't sulking, dating someone immature will always cost you something. As always, it's a matter of deciding whether his other qualities are worth that particular price.


The courtesy cops are out in force 05/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:55pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Washington Post.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours