Everyday Etiquette for Public-Place Encounters

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

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Photo by Jim Franco

Are the rules for navigating a crowded sidewalk or hallway the same as the ones for the road?
Absolutely. "You walk on the right and pass on the left," says Charles Purdy, a columnist for SF Weekly, in San Francisco, and the author of Urban Etiquette: Marvelous Manners for the Modern Metropolis (Wildcat Canyon, $15, amazon.com). And keep in mind that people shouldn't walk more than two abreast, says Sheryl Shade, author of As a Lady Would Say: Responses to Life's Important (and Sometimes Awkward) Situations (Rutledge Hill Press, $15, amazon.com). But "there's nothing you can do when other people don't play by the rules," Purdy adds. "When that happens, you should avoid bumping into them or causing an accident―just like on the road."
 
On the sidewalk, feel free to shuck off the Victorian custom of a gentleman's walking closer to the curb to protect a lady from mud from passing carriages. "The person on the inside should be whoever is wearing the nicer trousers that day," Purdy says with a laugh.
 
 On a cross-country flight, I'm seated next to a chatterbox who wants to swap life stories. How do I let her know that I don't?
Start with nonverbal cues, if possible. Carolyn Hanley, who flies about 60,000 miles each year as a technical trainer for a semiconductor-equipment company in Austin, Texas, has dealt with nosy seatmates on several continents. Her advice: Thumb through the pages of a book, open your laptop, or pull out your PDA. Or, if you've already started to engage the talker, "break off the conversation by calling the flight attendant over and asking a question like 'When do we actually land?' or 'Could I get a rum and Coke―quickly?'"
 
Nancy Huss, who spent 32 years as a flight attendant for TWA, notes two other important points of high-altitude etiquette. If you need to leave a window seat to stretch or use the facilities and your neighbor is asleep, "lightly tap her on the shoulder instead of attempting to crawl over her," says Huss. "No one wants to be rudely awakened by someone doing acrobatics on top of her, especially if there is turbulence." And don't bolt from your seat as soon as the plane arrives at the gate, says Huss. Exit one row at a time. Pretend you're leaving a church after a wedding.

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.

On a rainy day, when everyone is carrying an umbrella, how should I keep from bumping mine into other people? And what are the proper times to open and close my umbrella?
The tall ones need to take charge here. If two people are sharing an umbrella, the taller person should hold it. When two people carrying umbrellas are walking toward each other, the taller person should always raise his umbrella to allow the shorter person safe passage.
 
The rule for opening an umbrella is simple: Keep it shut until you are fully outside and clear of the door. Before entering a public building, Purdy says, "shake off your umbrella outside. If you get a little bit wet, that's what happens when it rains. A few raindrops on your head are preferable to creating a wet mess in someone's place of business."
 
The same goes for public transportation. When boarding a bus in the rain, always turn your back to the door, shut your umbrella, then make your entrance. "Otherwise I get sprayed, and the water on the floor makes things slippery," says Aretha Bull, a bus driver for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. Finally, never place your wet umbrella on an open seat or you'll put a damper on someone else's day.
 
 I'm at a crowded airport and I see a pregnant woman or an elderly person looking for a seat near the gate. I don't have one to give her, but should I ask someone else to give up his seat?
Give it a minute. The person will probably speak up for herself. If she does ask and her request is declined (or if she's clearly uncomfortable but appears too meek to ask), then it's fine to step in, says Cohen.
 
"If you ask one person and he says no, chances are someone else is going to offer," Shade adds. There's no need to keep asking on down the line.
 
 Is it OK to read over a person's shoulder?
The experts are split on this one. Bull flatly says that it's impolite: "People have to have their own space." Purdy agrees that leaning into someone's personal space is inappropriate but says, "If you're at very close quarters, how can you help it? If someone's newspaper is over your head and you're reading the back page, that's polite. Asking them to turn the page isn't."

There's a line of people behind me as I walk through a door. Should I hold the door for only the person behind me, for all of them, or for none of them?
Hold the door for the person directly behind you. For everyone else, you have to make a judgment call. If the door opens in and people are coming behind you, it's easy to make eye contact and hand the door off, Purdy says. If it opens out, you'll be removed from the flow of traffic by holding it, "but it probably won't take more than 15 seconds off your day," he says. If you're with a companion, there are all sorts of permutations as to who holds the door for whom, but it boils down to something fairly simple: "People in 'honor' positions should have less contact with doors," says Purdy. "If you're a gentleman on a date, hold the door for your lady. If you're showing a client to a conference room, hold the door for your client. And so on."
 
The rule for revolving doors is less intuitive, but it usually comes down to sex. Clarence Winfrey, a doorman at the venerable Peabody Hotel, in Memphis, says, "If the revolving door is moving, the woman goes first." But if it isn't moving, the man should try to "give the door a little push before letting the woman go through it first."
 
 Is it OK to help handicapped people through doorways, or should I ask first?
Always ask first. "It's just the courteous thing to do: 'May I hold the door for you?'" says Cyndi Jones, director of the Center for an Accessible Society, an organization in San Diego that promotes understanding of disability. "But don't say, 'Here, let me help you' or 'Let me do that for you.'"
 
 I'm standing in line at the movie theater and the person in front of me asks me to hold his place. A few minutes later, he comes back―with five friends. Should I challenge him?
While it's fine to hold a place in line for one or two people, this person has abused your courtesy. Whether to challenge such a transgression is a tougher question. Purdy suggests a gentle "Excuse me, but the line extends way back there." If that doesn't work, you have two dignified choices. You can accept that others won't always behave properly and understand that the joys of living with people are sometimes accompanied by annoyances, or you can alert the authorities and your bully will most likely lose the tough act.