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Column: I need a guidebook to tell me how to behave

A friend and his wife were at a movie recently, saving three seats for friends, in the usual way — an umbrella on one seat and hats on the others.

A friend and his wife were at a movie recently, saving three seats for friends, in the usual way — an umbrella on one seat and hats on the others.

There were plenty of empty chairs behind them, but a couple suddenly marched down their row, threw their stuff off the seats and lectured them on their behaviour, saying it was against the rules to save three seats.

Really? So what is the rule? I know you can’t save eight seats, but can you save one for your partner? Or one extra seat for each of you sitting there? Or 1.5?

Was three really too many? It’s one of many grey zones we face where we’re not sure how to behave because there’s no official rule.

When I visit foreign countries, I can get confused by their customs, so I read a guidebook. But there are times I wish I had a Canadian guidebook to tell me how to behave here. For example:

n When standing in ticket lineups or bus queues, how many people can you let in? Your spouse is OK, but how about a friend who passes by and wants to yak? Two friends? More?

n At supermarkets, should you let someone ahead in the queue because you’ve got 20 items and they’ve just got a lemon? Sometimes, when I’m just buying a newspaper at a busy till, I hold it up — and people let me through. But I once let in a guy who just had a Coke — and he spent five minutes buying lotto tickets.

n My teenage son Daniel faces a dilemma on buses, where he’s not sure who to offer a seat. How old do people have to be? If he offers one to the wrong person, they sometimes refuse and even look offended, as if he’s singled them out and shouted: “You’re old!”

Maybe the elderly should wear stickers saying; “I accept seats.” But if you see me in a bus, please don’t get up — I’d rather stand.

n How long can you spend at a bank machine while others wait? Some people bring three months of banking and seem to be running a corporation from the ATM — using four bank cards to deposit piles of cheques. Is there a maximum time limit, or do you own the machine once you get it?

A while ago, I had loads of banking to do at a single-machine branch, but heard sighs and groans behind me partway through, so I stopped and went to the end of the line. Was I courteous, or a sucker?

It’s similar when you’re about to leave a parking spot and another car pulls up to wait — only you’re talking on the phone. Should you hang up right away? Or make your chat shorter? Or pay no attention because it’s still your spot?

Last week, I waited five minutes beside a car that was leaving, as the driver fiddled with the lights, rustled in the glovebox, then made a phone call — until I gave up and left. This matches a study in the book Traffic that found drivers take longer to leave on average when someone’s waiting, because their spot has become more valuable.

n A big grey question for many women: Is it OK to use an empty men’s bathroom when the women’s has a lineup? I’d say sure — there’s obviously an international women’s toilet shortage, because the lineups for them at big public venues can be 10 times longer than men’s.

n At a grocery store, if a tomato falls on the ground and rolls around, do you buy it, put it back in the bin or hide it?

Where’s that guidebook?


Josh Freed is a Montreal Gazette columnist.

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