Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
Q. How do you politely—but effectively—confront someone in public?
A. First let’s start with a caveat: There are times when you shouldn’t try to intervene on your own. Say it’s late at night and you’re in a dark alley with someone who is in the process of breaking into an apartment building. I would not suggest speaking up at that moment. This is otherwise known as common sense.
But most circumstances fall into grayer areas. A perfect example: The other morning I was walking through the park with my most self-assured friend, who happens to be a surgeon. We were deep in conversation when she suddenly stopped and stared at a pet owner who was chatting with an acquaintance as her pooch squatted nearby.
“Someone should tell her to pick up after the dog,” the surgeon said.
“Someone should,” I agreed, thinking, But who? Not me. I’m wimpy!
“I’m going to say something,” she announced.
“Really?” I asked, my heart starting to pound. (That’s how wimpy I am.)
“Excuse me—is that your retriever?” the surgeon called. The owner smiled, probably expecting a compliment (her dog had a fine, glossy coat, after all).
“You need to do a pickup over there,” the surgeon added in a firm voice, pointing to the deposit. “We don’t want a child to step in it.”
“Right,” the owner agreed. She headed toward her dog before turning and adding, “Thanks!” Whoa! Thanks?
“How did you pull that off?” I asked.
“Easy—I used my doctor’s voice,” she said. Ah yes, that was where I had heard that tone of voice before. It was at a recent checkup, when my physician announced authoritatively that I needed a flu shot and more exercise.
That’s when I realized that the trick to confronting people without having them ignore you (or sparking a full-blown fight) is to sound calm, dispassionate, and helpful. Certainly there are people who will respond poorly to any sort of criticism. The oblivious mom at the playground doesn’t want to hear that her child is acting like a hooligan, so chances are she’ll be tart and defensive no matter how you approach her. Nonetheless, using a “doctor’s voice” may be your best bet for emerging from a confrontation relatively unscathed.
Afterward I practiced speaking in that manner in front of a mirror, making sure to keep my expression neutral. And just a few days later I put my new technique into practice.
I was walking down the street behind a teenager who tossed a gum wrapper on the ground.
“Excuse me,” I called in my most unruffled and adult-sounding voice, imagining myself wearing a stethoscope.
He turned. I pointed to the gum wrapper. That was all it took.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, and picked it right up. And, miracle of miracles, he even gave me a smile.