This fall, a teenager, let's call him Ken, has been settling in as a freshman at a large state university. Three months in, he appears to have found a good rhythm in balancing his coursework and social life.
Ken has a voracious appetite. He's a slender kid, but the workouts and schedule he maintains keep him hungry. His parents helped him choose wisely when they chose the Dining Hall meal plan providing for unlimited meals and in-between snacks at the campus dining halls.
For the most part, that dining choice has worked well. Ken can choose from among the three dining halls on campus, alternating his choices depending on what specials might be on the menu each day.
"Some of my friends don't like the food at some of the dining halls," Ken writes, "so we go together to eat where everyone likes the food."
All was going well for Ken, until he met his nemesis, let's call him Larry. Larry is the manager of the dining hall where Ken often eats lunch. If you're on the meal plan Ken's on, you can eat all you want in the dining hall, but the rules are that you cannot take food outside of the dining hall. Occasionally, Ken says he's grabbed an apple or two or some other snack on his way out of a dining hall and the managers at the two other dining halls never say anything. But Larry stops Ken each time and tells him he can't take food out of the dining hall.
"I'm paying thousands of dollars to go here and he won't let me take an extra apple," Ken protests. "He also stopped me when I was eating an Ice Cream Cone I had made after lunch."
Ken has always complied when Larry called him out. He writes that once when Larry confronted him about an apple in his hand, he tossed it in the trash before leaving, "just to make a point."
Who's right here, Ken wants to know. "Shouldn't I be able to eat without being hassled?"
Yes, of course, Ken should be able to eat without being hassled. But Larry is simply doing his job. That the rules are inconsistently enforced from one dining hall to the next shouldn't matter since Ken is obliged to follow the rules of the dining hall he's in at the time.
Throwing away an apple in protest is wasteful and likely did not have the effect of changing the situation for which Ken yearned. Eating the apple on the spot before he left would have been fine.
But Larry was wrong to call Ken on the ice cream cone he was midway through eating as he was leaving. If the policy is in place to keep students from taking food to use outside the dining hall rather than purchase their own food later, telling students they can't finish eating items they've already started to consume misses the spirit of the rule and achieves nothing aside from a bravado show of authority.
The right thing is for Larry to let Ken finish eating his ice cream cone in peace and for Ken to honor the rules Larry is charged with enforcing by not carrying uneaten food from the dining hall. Each of them deserves respect from one another, regardless of how agitated they become.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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