Friday, August 6, 2010

Don't Help Me...Please!

You know what they say about good intentions? But what are you supposed to say in response when someone with the very best of intentions has done something supposedly to your benefit that you not only didn't want but consider a big nuisance? Do you still say thank you? Are you honest about your reaction (perhaps causing that person to mutter within earshot, "Well, that's the last time I'm ever going to try to do someone a favor again!") Or do you just smile one of those awkwardly pained smiles and make the best of it?

Consider these situations:

1. Homeowners A&B go on vacation, leaving their home to the care of unpaid house-sitting grad student C, the daughter of a close friend, who is getting three weeks of rent-free accommodations in return for keeping the plants watered, taking in the mail, and making the house look lived-in. One day house-sitter C notices how dingy and gray the front hall curtains look. In an effort to do a little something extra for A&B, C decides to take the curtains down and wash them and put them back looking all clean and new. However, these are extremely delicate handmade lace curtains that A&B bought in Belgium on their honeymoon twenty years ago -- and they are definitely not machine washable! They come out completely in tatters, and upon their homecoming C tearfully tells A&B that she was only trying to do a nice thing. She offers to pay for some new curtains, but A&B know that it's well beyond her budget even to pay for standard curtains, much less replace the curtains they had custom made from lace they lovingly selected and purchased abroad. They go the
make-the-best-of-it route, suck up the loss, preserve the relationship with the daughter and her parents -- and vow never use a student house-sitter again.

2. D flies to Boston several times a year. Each time she goes, she rents a car, filling out a web form to reserve the smallest, cheapest model she can get. The last several times she's done this, she has arrived at the rental counter to find the perky attendant happily informing her that she's been "upgraded to an SUV at no additional charge." But D doesn't want an SUV: Not only is it harder to navigate Boston's narrow streets, but it's almost impossible to park in the tight spaces of the neighborhood where D will be staying, and the cost of the fill-up is substantially higher. But when D politely turns down the "better" car, the counter clerk gives her a look that says, "What, are you crazy that you don't want this beautiful big SUV that normally costs three times the rental price for that junky little tin box you were going to get?" (Yes, that's a lot of words packed into one look, but if you've ever seen it, you can read it very clearly.) On top of that, the formerly perky clerk now has to redo all the paperwork, and that takes extra time. On two of these occasions the small car has not been available right away, and D has had to wait a half an hour to forty-five minutes for the smaller car to be cleaned up and made ready. D has tried to explain that this "favor" is not a favor in her eyes, but she can see that her best attempt to make that clear has simply marked her in the clerk's eyes as a difficult customer. D has tried being polite but persistent, and she's tried being blunt. She has even tried switching rental car companies, but still she's been "selected" to be "awarded" an upgrade, with all the usual hassle that follows. She is still looking for an effective way to deal with this problem.

3. E needs to get a package to a client overnight and calls FedEx for a pickup. Dinner guest F arrives, sees the package on the front porch, and figures it's a FedEx delivery, and brings it into the house. F mentions to wife of E that he's brought in a package, but Mrs. E is focused on making dinner and does not realize that it's the same package that her husband has just set out and is anxious to have picked up by 7pm. Fortunately for everyone, E thinks to check to see whether FedEx has made the pickup. There's no package on the porch, which might indicate that it's already been picked up, but then E happens to see the box on the front hall bench, and even more fortunately, learns that it's not too late for FedEx to come back to make the pickup (although it does cost extra for the return visit). Is this a let-the-guest-know situation? Or is it really Mrs. E's fault for not paying attention when Guest F said, "I've brought in the package that was on your porch"?

4. A couple, G&H, called a tree removal company to cut down a huge, dead tree in their tiny back yard. In order for the massive tree to come down, the swingset behind the tree had to be removed first. G&H's children had outgrown it, and so they had no problem giving it away. After the tree was down, the tree cutter showed G how well he had cleaned up all the debris and sawdust after the tree removal. Then he added, gesturing at the mulched area where the swingset once had been, "And we did a little something extra for you, too -- no charge. We seeded this area with grass. In a few weeks' time you'll have a nice little lawn here." A lawn that would need to be mowed and tended was actually the last thing G&H wanted. But it seemed ungrateful to complain when the tree contractor thought he had done a good deed. However, months later, when G&H were really, really sick of having to mow the grass that now grows copiously, they wish they'd said, "No, no, we never wanted grass, so please do something to keep it from growing." Someday soon, when G&H are ready to do a re-landscaping of their back yard, the first thing they'll have to do is pay for someone to tear up this new, unwanted lawn.

5. (I've been saving the worst case for last): J is a teenage girl who walks home from school every day. One afternoon she's standing patiently at a marked crosswalk, waiting for the traffic to clear in both directions. There are four lanes of traffic, two in each direction, and no traffic light. A lady driving a large car in the lane closest to J stops for her and waves to let her know that it's safe to cross. J starts walking across the intersection. Unfortunately, neither J nor the lady in the stopped car can see that there's a car in the next lane over, coming up fast toward the intersection. The driver of that car cannot see J in the crosswalk at the point because she's obscured from view by the height and bulk of the first car that has stopped for her. The lady in that stopped car continues to wave J on, and so J steps right out in front of the speeding car in the next lane. This story doesn't end quite as horribly as it might have done. J is hit and suffers a broken leg, but it's an injury that will eventually heal completely. J is now fine, having learned the hard way that sometimes you can't just go along with a friendly gesture and trust that the other person is able to look out for you. You still need to stop and ask yourself, "Is this okay?"

And if it isn't, you might have to say something. Or at very least, not take that next step!

Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on August 6, 2010.


  1. Peggy, these are great bad scenarios (I'm hoping they're all fiction for your sake). My brother always says, "As long as no one is dead or dying, things are all right." We have friends that have cherished and elaborate hand-made pottery lamps, made by old friends of the family, and apparently they're worth some big $$. They literally have them wired to the ceiling so that if someone knocks them off the table, they won't fall and break. I don't even like to be in the same room with them as they make me so nervous (so forget about my seven year old!). My unsolicited two cents? People always matter more than stuff. As for scenario #5, that's just plain awful.

    At this point, I'm wondering if this was all supposed to be an exercise in the hypothetical . . . . time to go now! :-)

  2. No, unfortunately, none of these are hypothetical cases; all 5 of these are real life examples. Only one of them happened to us. (To keep the tone the same throughout the report, I haven't said which one is the personal one.) The other 4 happened to neighbors, relatives, or friends. I will just add that the rental car problem is so commonplace that I've heard it from multiple customers.