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Everyday Etiquette for Public-Place Encounters

11 unwritten rules while in parking lots, planes, stores, and beyond.

By Michael Joseph Gross
Notepad with four illustrationsJim FrancoRealSimple.com

How do I claim a parking spot when everyone's clamoring for the next open one? Is it OK to follow a person in a parking lot as she leaves the store and heads to her car?
First of all, never let a passenger jump out of your car to claim a spot for you by standing in it―if another car speeds into the open space, the parking spot will be the least of your worries. Use your blinker to show you've claimed a spot. By the same token, if you see another car with a flashing blinker, accept that the person has claimed the space, even if you are closer to it.
 
If you're a woman and you see someone heading from the store to her car, it is OK to follow the person. Why? That person is less likely to feel threatened by a female driver, says Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, a volunteer community-safety patrol with chapters around the world. Just be sure to first roll down your window and ask, "Are you leaving the parking lot?" and then follow at a respectful distance.
 
Purdy notes that parallel parking has its own rules: Pull over in front of the space and put on your blinker, then back toward the curb. Of course, "there are some jerks who are going to ignore your signal and veer into that space," he says. When that happens, you have two options: "You can get upset and compromise your dignity and yell at them, or you can say, 'Some people are jerks, and I'm going to get on with my life and find another parking space.'"
 
 At some cash registers (in fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, and drugstores), it's not clear whether customers should form separate lines at each register or stand in a single line. How do I resolve queue confusion?
Go with the flow―even if the flow feels like chaos, says Shade: "Just try to stay in the line, and sooner or later you'll get to the front." Don't bother trying to whip the rest of the crowd into shape. At the supermarket, if you have just one or two items, it's fine to ask the person with the $100 grocery cart to let you slip by. "People will almost never say no," says Randy Cohen, Ethicist columnist for The New York Times Magazine and the author of The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell the Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations (Broadway, $14, amazon.com).
 
 What should I do when I'm pushing my cart down the aisle in a grocery store and someone has left her cart blocking my way?
It depends on what's in the cart. If it's just groceries, feel free to move it over so you can roll by. If the wandering shopper returns to catch you red-handed, "say, 'Excuse me―I had to get by,' with a smile," says Purdy. If the shopper has left her purse or baby in the cart, however, a hands-off policy should apply. Generally, "you can go around to another aisle―it won't add more than 30 seconds to your trip," Purdy says.

 
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