Introducing “Ask Mr. Ethiquette”

I was pulling into a parking spot at Panera’s Cafe the other day when I encountered a moral dilemma. And it had nothing to do with the poaching of free wi-fi.

Rather, it involved a businesswoman loading her car with what looked to be just-purchased bags full of sandwiches, probably for a lunch meeting back at her office. She accidentally left one large parcel on the curb as she got in to drive away.

I faced a choice that would say a lot about the kind of person I am: I could either toot my horn at her and point to the bag, or I could let her drive cluelessly away and have myself a dozen free ham-and-cheese sandwiches. I suppose there was also a third choice which involved running over the bag just to see what kind of squishy mess I could make, but that seemed like a grey area on the spectrum of right versus wrong.

I’m proud to say that I was getting ready to do the right thing when she happened to notice her own mistake and pulled back into the parking space to retrieve the bag. I was so glad I hadn’t decided to snatch the thing up for myself just as she returned. I’d have some fancy explaining to do.

What this incident showed me is that I have the gift of understanding moral nuance, and ought to share my gift with others. What is the proper way for one to act when placed in a situation where you have to combine the desire to assist a fellow human with knowing how to react when you inevitably fail? What do you say to your neighbor when you meant to wave “hi” but instead almost run him over? Should you hold the door open for a coworker who has to jog across the parking lot to keep you from waiting for them? If you’re an executioner in Iran, do you apologize to your prisoner for the inconvenience of beheading him?

This is the intersection of ethics and etiquette, and it can be a dangerous crossroads to negotiate, even when I’m not chasing down neighbors with my car. Most people want to adhere to a system of moral principles governing appropriate conduct, and at the same time don’t want to embarrass themselves by behaving foolishly. Etiquette — the rules and conventions governing correct or polite behavior in society — should also be proper. And I can tell you how to accomplish both.

This is the premiere of a season of Friday blog installments where I take questions on ethics and etiquette and try to give an answer appropriate for both dimensions. If you want to do the right thing but choose to do the wrong thing, how do you handle the whole situation with grace when you’re exposed for the animal you are?

Ask the man they rather awkwardly call “Mr. Ethiquette.”

Dear Mr. Ethiquette,
It is okay to pick your nose while driving even if you don’t have tinted windows? Do I have to care if someone sees me? Where else am I supposed to do it — during a staff meeting? What are the proper venues for the manual extraction of bodily fluids, other than locked in the handicapped stall? Or am I supposed to just let the obstructions build up in there until I get a massive infection and the whole center of my face has to be surgically removed? — P.F., in Dallas

Dear P.F.,
Let me guess — P.F. stands for “pinky finger,” right?

Studies quoted by Dr. Oz on Tuesday’s Oprah indicate that the average person “picks or touches” their nose about five times an hour. Of course, there’s a big difference between picking and touching, as coke addicts, I Dream of Jeannie and Santa headed up the chimney can attest.

The human olfactory organ is incredibly effective in most regards. It allowed our primitive ancestors to sense the presence of danger in the form of foul-breathed predators. Later predecessors may have encountered beauty for the first time through the smell of a flower. When our pioneer forefathers got into an Old West barroom brawl, the nose provided something convenient to punch.

The internal workings of the nasal passages are efficient and repulsive at the same time. Mucus combines with tiny hairs (at least they’re tiny until you reach your fifties, when they begin to grow luxuriant) to form a sticky surface that captures dust and dirt, keeping foreign matter out of the lungs. As air rushes over these coagulated particulates with every breath, they dry out and become what are technically known as “boogers”.

In its smaller form, the booger is harmless, but as it becomes larger, a certain discomfort grows within the nose that will eventually culminate in suffocation if you don’t get those disgusting things out of there. Fortunately, evolution saw fit not only to give us fingers with the exact same diameter as our nose holes, but also with fingernails attached at the end to help with the occasional need for nasal excavation. Natural selection weeded out the thick-fingered until only the modern nose-picker survived.

Where this unearthing exercise takes place depends on your culture. Among certain tribes of the western Pacific, there’s a whole ritual involved where the village elders gather around and chant celebratory songs as the booger is removed, then held high for all to see. In more civilized societies, the extraction is done in private.

Being in your car counts as privacy in my book. Just as most motorists feel free to apply makeup, sing along with Lady Gaga and engage in sexual relations with their front-seat passenger while paused at a traffic light, so too should you feel free to go elbow-deep if necessary to do what needs to be done. If any onlookers object, it’s their problem, not yours.

I would advise you to take care and be conscientious about your disposal methods while working out in the car. Most people keep a small pack of tissues or the underside of their seat handy to serve as a repository for their prize. What you do in the privacy of your car may be your own business, but when you start flicking stuff out the window and onto the windshield of the guy pulled up behind you, then you’ve stepped over the bounds of propriety.

I say, continue to go for it as you wish. A blocked-up nose “snot” other people’s problem; it’s yours.

Always wash your hands after any facial maintenance -- you never know who you're going to meet

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One Response to “Introducing “Ask Mr. Ethiquette””

  1. Stentorphone Says:

    Well. What a delightful and classy topic for the première installment of “Ask Mr. Ethiquette”.

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