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A Smoking Snitch

Should you out a teen puffer? Plus baby-shower tackiness and riding with fat people.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Miss Conduct
March 2, 2008

On a recent snow day, I noticed my neighbor's teenage son, who was home alone, smoking on his back porch. Should I tell his mother or suppose that she already knows? I don't want to embarrass her.

H.P. in Chelmsford

I spoke to some parents of teenagers about this, and they all agreed that they would want to know. So I think you should say something. You still might embarrass your neighbor, or she might think it's none of your business. So tell her upfront that you debated whether or not to tell her and that you hope she agrees it was the right thing to do and that she'll forgive you if, in her eyes, it wasn't.

I recently received a mass e-mail from my pregnant niece that announced her due date and baby's name and added: "Please join us as we prepare for her arrival with the help of . . . A shower has yet to be planned." How does one respond to this thinly veiled solicitation? This is their fourth child (all girls). Are showers expected for every baby these days?

C.B. in Concord, New Hampshire

Wow, that's chutzpah. "With the help of"? No, with the help of friends and relatives and the mass-produced consumer goods of I think your niece is hustling friends and relatives and is out of line. You can respond to this e-mail as you would to any baby announcement – with congratulations and the promises of good wishes, prayers, and similar intangibles. If a shower is held, you do not need to attend (though if you do attend, bring a gift; the point of showers is gifts, so don't go if you don't want to give). A shower would be unusual for a fourth child, especially if she is of the same sex as all the others. So you may want to start preparing your gentle RSVP "non" now.

Or you may not. I think your niece is being tacky, and from the tone of your letter, so do you. But how important is this tackiness in the larger picture? (It may be the whole story; I'm just asking.) Are she and her family hard up? Might they have extra cause for need with this child? Often, and sadly, the people who need the most help find the ability to graciously ask for help is yet another thing that they lack. If this is the case with your niece, be as generous as you can in your assumptions and your giving.

Frequently I've seen overweight people insist on squeezing themselves into subway and bus seats that are too small for them. This results in their arms and legs landing on top of the people sitting on either side of them. This is very uncomfortable for the riders being squished, who often just get up out of their seat because it's too awkward to say anything to the person with the weight issue. Nobody seems to know how to handle this. What do you suggest?

E.C. in Boston

A subway or bus token buys you the right to a ride, not to a seat or an enjoyable experience. As a short person, I don't like having my face stuck in some basketball player's armpit when I ride, but such is the case at times. As a person with a bad back, I don't like having to get up and surrender my seat to an elderly person, but this happens, too. I don't like hearing secondhand rap music from a neighbor's ear buds or shrieking drunken dialogue, nor do I like smelling Axe body spray or last night's Mad Dog 20/20. But when you take public transportation, you need to develop tolerance and detachment. If you can't handle contact with the flesh of strangers, public transportation is not for you.

As a rule, subway riders shouldn't sit where there isn't enough space, unless they have a compelling reason to do so. If someone is impinging on your space – because of obesity, a puffy coat, a pregnant belly, a laden backpack, or an infant in a Snugli – you can say, "Excuse me. You're in my space," or you can get up and move. Neither option is particularly awkward; they just reflect the realities of crowded public transport.

If my tone seems brusque, I apologize. But I know the kinds of letters that will be waiting for me on Monday morning because I dared not hate fat people in this response. Do you know that every time I suggest courtesy to the overweight, I get not just letters disagreeing with me, but actual hate mail? The general theme of which is, invariably: "But if we treat overweight people with dignity, they will have no motivation to lose weight, and will continue to be fat at me!" Miss Conduct is not at home to that line of reasoning.

Here's the thing about fat people, folks: They exist. And they have a right to do so. And a whole lot of them wrote sad, funny, insightful things to me when I posted this question on my blog, and you can read some of their responses yourself at Go read, go learn.

My Word!

Before giving a person's name as a job or personal reference, ask him or her. This is not only polite but also in your own best interest – this gives your reference a chance to think in advance of good things to say about you. And let your references know how the job search is going. If you get the job, a thank you note or even a small gift would be appropriate. (Thanks to the anonymous reader who suggested this.)

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

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