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Bad Seeds 

The polite response to saliva-covered sunflower shells dropped on your bare toes

Wednesday, Jul 23 2003
Dear Social Grace,

What do you say to someone sitting next to you on Muni who spends your entire commute (Montgomery Street to far, far into the Sunset) happily munching on sunflower seeds and dropping the saliva-covered shells onto the floor and, a couple of times, onto your toes, which are exposed by your open-toed shoes? I really thought I'd crawl right out of my skin, but I could think of nothing else to say but a muttered "Disgusting!" as I stepped over the shells to get off the train. I don't even think he heard me.

Riding the L Terrible

Dear Riding Madam or Sir,

Apropos as the appellation may have been in your case, calling a fellow commuter "disgusting" is, itself, rather disgusting behavior. In the future, that's out, I'm afraid.

Now, let's start with my standard preamble to advice about dealing with strangers' public-etiquette transgressions: Pick your battles wisely. Life is too short to worry about every offense, and there are too many horrid, nasty people out there to make a scene about each one. Make certain that you can't just deal, as the kids say. Don't let yourself get involved in arguments and name-calling. Seek out an authority figure (the Muni driver, in this instance) if health or safety is a concern.

That said, saliva-covered sunflower seeds on your bare skin? Ew. There's no reason to put up with that. In such a situation, you are well within your rights to turn to the muncher and, in your sternest, most dignified manner, say, "Pardon me, sir, but you are dropping your damp sunflower husks on me. I must ask you to stop." Please make sure that other commuters can hear you (he's done nothing to deserve having his privacy respected), and apply a level, lengthy stare.

Dear Social Grace,

A friend in my hometown recently asked me to be a reference for a job opening at the company I worked for when I lived there. I love my friend, but I know she is a terrible employee. I know her too well! I know about some pretty horrible things she did at her last job, even though they let her "resign" rather than fire her. I don't have any grand allegiance to my old bosses, but I do think it would reflect badly upon me if I recommended someone who ended up doing the sorts of shenanigans my friend does. My question is, how do I handle this? I feel like my choice is to either lie to my former employers, which is just bad business sense, or tell my friend that I can't recommend her, which would probably end my friendship with her. Plus, she is exactly the sort of person who would put some nasty revenge plan into play if I don't do what she says. Like I say, I know her too well!

Friends With the Bad Seed

Dear Friendly Madam or Sir,

I think you see your only two options fairly clearly. And I think you know which is the wiser in the long run. (And now that you live in a different city, consider making new friends who don't have a predilection for cruel revenge. They're just safer.)

But there is a way to spare your friend's ... well, let's call it her sensitive side -- and protect your honor, too. Explain to her that you'd be happy to supply a personal reference, and do so. Tell your former employer, if asked, that although you've never worked with your friend (true) and therefore can't recommend her as an employee (true), that you greatly enjoy her friendship (true). Then elaborate on her finer qualities -- her punny sense of humor, her impressive knowledge of Bond-movie trivia, or whatever those qualities are. Most employers understand the difference between a personal and a professional reference, and your dangerously vengeful friend may choose not to exact retribution if you can say nice things about her.

My Dear Social,

Here's a good one for you. It's about "control of the eyes," something our culture doesn't really teach. We're all taught not to stare, but that's about it. What annoys me -- hence my letter to you -- is people who come into my cubicle at work and proceed to stare blatantly at my computer screen. Now, I'm not talking about my boss; he can look all he wants because it's part of his job to know what I'm up to. But anyone else, no, they should not be doing this at all. It's a privacy issue, really, and we all know how important that is. What do you think: Is it rude, intrusive, and undisciplined -- as I think it is? Thanks.

Sign me, Eyeballs in Sockets, Please

Dear Scrutinized Madam or Sir,

You are at the office, so I have to allow that there may be legitimate reasons for a colleague who isn't your boss to glance at your computer screen. (Perhaps he's checking to see whether you're working on something that he might help you with, for example.) And I know that here at Social Grace Inc., people have a legitimate curiosity about the fruits of my typing fingers, so I try to forgive the occasional stray eye.

But you're right: It would be much nicer if they asked first. It is a privacy issue (what you're working on could well be for specific eyes). If you feel your privacy invaded by a co-worker looking at your monitor in an undisciplined manner, do her a favor by showing her the error of her ways: Simply say with a helpful smile, "May I help you with something Ms. Lee? Do I have something you need?" Move your head into her line of sight, if need be. Repeat as necessary. If all else fails, see if you can arrange your cubicle in a way that will inhibit people who lack "eye control."

About The Author

Social Grace


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