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Auntie SparkNotes: Should I Say Something To Adults Who Are Behaving Badly?

Auntie SparkNotes: Should I Say Something To Adults Who Are Behaving Badly?

Dear Auntie,
I work as a cashier, and recently I've seen customers doing things that have unsettled me and left me really confused. A woman who trains service dogs, who is a regular with her grown son and father, came in with 2 service dogs. I don't know if they're her personal service dogs or ones she's training, but I called them over to my line because I was open. Her dog barked aggressively once or twice at a smaller dog (I work at a pet supply store) so she folded up a leather leash and smacked her dog several times on the snout. Now, the nose and muzzle are incredibly sensitive for a dog, and it had to hurt a lot.

Everyone around saw her doing it and was visibly shocked, and the lady started going off to another woman whose expression she saw about how "I goddamned know what I'm doing and I've been training for 40 years!" Well, of course someone would be upset, YOU WERE JUST HITTING YOUR DOG. I just kind of stood there because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And another time, a grandmother came in with her young grandson who apparently kept getting in their and their cart's way as I was ringing them up, and I turned around for a split second to pick up a clip board, when I heard a small smack. I didn't see it happen, but I know she hit him. Sure, I've heard people empty-threaten to smack their dogs or kids if they're misbehaving, but I've never once seen it happen before.

For both of these instances, I honestly had no idea what to do because it's not exactly something you expect to happen, and then they're out of the store before you can fully realize what just happened. Morally I know I should have said something, but I'm still confused. What should I have done? What should I do if I see it happen again?

Well, for starters, here’s what you shouldn’t do: break out your soapbox, stand up on it, and deliver a lecture on moral wrongs to a person whose idea of “right” clearly differs from yours.

Because while these situations may make you personally uncomfortable, I think you realize that your personal discomfort does not equal a black-and-white moral imperative, right? I mean, even if you’d witnessed this woman hit her grandchild (and it’s important to note that you really can’t know what happened while your back was turned) spanking isn’t illegal. There are plenty of people who’d tell you that a “small smack” is a totally acceptable, even necessary, form of punishment for unruly kids. And similarly, giving a dog a corrective rap on the nose is a preferred method of discipline for an awful lot of trainers, even if you wouldn’t do it yourself.

And this is where we come to the unfortunate fact that you—and I, and the rest of the world—are not the arbiters of how other people get to behave, even when that behavior is really distasteful.

You might not believe in giving a dog a smack on the nose to correct its behavior, but some people do, and they're allowed. You might not believe in spanking a misbehaving child, but some people do, and they're allowed. You might not believe in getting married in Vegas by an Elvis impersonator to a person you barely know, but some people do, and they're allowed. And you might not agree with putting ketchup on your hot dogs, but some people do, and... well, okay, these people should be arrested. But alas, they, too, are allowed. (ed note: we have no idea what Auntie is talking about!!!! Ketchup is clearly the condiment of the gods!)

Which is why, in service professions and in general, your best bet is to live and let live as far as basic decency allows. And, on the occasions when you do feel you must step in, to not ride in on a high horse with the declaration that YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.

Because really, most of the people you see misbehaving in public aren’t evil; they’re just normal people having a bad moment, possibly exacerbated by a bad day, in which they burned their toast and the car wouldn’t start and the toilet clogged and their sticky-fingered toddler has spent the last three hours screaming at top volume because he wasn’t allowed to eat a dead beetle he found in the parking lot. And where slinging judgments at an angry person is just going to make things worse, giving that person a chance to do the right thing on her own works wonders.

So, when you see someone going off, try this: politely stepping in, smiling, and saying, “Hi! Can I help you with anything?” (And if you see something really serious—like actual abuse—then alert your manager to what's happening as well. )

This works in both cases like the one you describe, as well as in cases where something more serious is going on. It forces a pause in the conflict in which the angry person has to simmer down enough to interact with you. And it sends an important but non-verbal message: You're being watched. Which, fortunately, is all the incentive most people need to check themselves and start acting like normal humans.

And also, it’s a lot less likely to get you punched in the face. Which is always nice. Happy Friday.

Have you ever witnessed something that made you want to step in? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at

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Topics: Advice
Tags: auntie sparknotes, pets, dogs, grownups, jerks, adults

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Kat Rosenfield is a writer, illustrator, advice columnist, YA author, and enthusiastic licker of that plastic liner that comes inside a box of Cheez-Its. She loves zombies and cats. She hates zombie cats. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr @katrosenfield.

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