Monday, October 8, 2007

Kindness and Strangers: ok to say no?

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Yesterday I took my son to dance class, held in a neighborhood about 20 minutes away from the main part of town. A parent who I have just seen in passing, and not even exchanged names with, out of the blue asked me to drive her son to a parking lot in the center of town to meet her after class, rather than coming back to pick him up. Our two sons don't know each others' names, either--partially because of a language barrier (the family is Korean). I was very uncomfortable with this. Thoughts that went through my head were that her son is of an age and size where I would put him in a booster seat in the car, but she made no mention of him needing one, how did I know if she would be where she said she would be, in an area that is pretty unfamiliar to me as we've only lived here for two months, and wow, I would never ask anyone to do such a thing for me unless it were some kind of life or death emergency. So, I made up a lame excuse about needing to be somewhere directly after class. I hope it was plausible, but I feel bad about not helping out when I probably could have. What would you have done?

I think in this instance your polite excuse was the best route, even if you had to obscure the truth a bit. Behaving humanely means that more often than not you bite your tongue (not the same as lying), especially when you are not confident about the full background of a situation.

You had multiple good reasons for not agreeing to the request. Your excuse allowed you to excuse yourself (the words are related for a reason!) from a situation you were not comfortable with, and without getting into it with the person about why you were uncomfortable. Although it sounds as though the thoughts running through your head were bordering on the inappropriate (e.g. "What kind of mother would ask a perfect stranger to drive her son to some parking lot?!?!”) you very decorously kept these to yourself. Who knows, maybe where the family has lived previously such a request was perfectly above board.

If making amends would make you feel better and if carpooling is genuinely something you would like to consider, you can take this up with the woman next time you see her, making it clear that any ride-sharing will have to be coordinated well in advance. And if going alone is better for your situation, you can also explain this to her too: "Our family has such a hectic schedule, I'm afraid I can't commit to coordinating rides with anyone." If you are polite and upfront and don't make it a big deal, she probably won't either.

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