Ethical Dilemmas: What Should You Do?

"Primetime" used hidden cameras to examine how people react when faced with ethical dilemmas or sticky situations. We asked you to send us your questions about ethics or etiquette and received hundreds of responses. Carrie Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University, answers some of them here.

Donna from Canada asked, "How should I handle friends or strangers taking food from buffets and putting it in their purse? I have also been in the company of friends who walk out with pasteries wrapped in a servette from a buffet…for that matter, people who take anything from a restaraunt they're not suppose to. I find this very embarrassing."

Keating: Habits like these are hard to break! Here are two things you could do:

1. Tell your friends that the behavior embarrasses you. 2. Think about why this behavior embarrasses you. Do you see it as dishonest? If so, you may want to discuss this to your friends. In the case of strangers, you may want to talk to the manager and report what you saw.

Pete asked, "So what do you do when you know someone is cheating on their significant other even if they do not do it in public?

Keating: It sounds like you are friends with the person you believe is doing the cheating. If so, your concern about that person's decision-making could be expressed. Take the friend aside and express your concern to that person alone. There is a lot you may be assuming about the person's relationship that may or may not be true. If the relationship between the pair is broken, your friend should step up and fix it -- if it is to be maintained.

Thomas from Memphis wrote, "I have a three year old daughter that is generally well-behaved. But there are those instances when she can be a little terror!! When we go out in public, she will throw a mega-tantrum to get her way. I have tried everything to get her to stop. I've tried ignoring it, saying no, removing her from the situation and event spanking…nothing works. I dread taking her into stores and when I do I avoid the areas that tend to spark the tantrum (toys, candy, holiday display, etc.). With all of that I still get the yelling, screaming, crying, whinning and the falling to the floor screaming and kicking.

I get the looks, stares and the unwanted advise on how to deal with my daughter. One well-meaning person suggested that I try caffeine and get her tested for ADHD.What can I do to counteract this? I'm not embarrassed, just afraid in this day and time I will end up in jail or be visited by child welfare for child abuse and neglect."

Keating: I take it from your description that your little girl behaves this way mostly when she is in public, and usually when she sees something she wants (a toy, candy, etc.). Sounds like she is using the public forum to manipulate the situation -- and it works well for her.

If we assume that she likes to be out in public with you (that she is not simply trying to get you to take her home) then this might work:

Practice going to stores with her. In other words, plan some short trips to a store with the sole intent of practicing good behavior (don't have any other goal in mind). Set the rules of behavior (no crying, screaming, etc. -- be specific). Figure out an attractive reward to give if she complies and the trip is successful. If she does not, simply return home and try the same thing the next day. Work up to longer outings slowly and do not vary the rules or the consequences. Don't get emotional yourself; be steady in following the program!

Dan wrote, "As defined in the dictionary, ethics refers to the rule of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class, group or culture. As a minority, I feel offended when racial slurs are spoken in a public forum. But as an American, I understand that freedom of speech is covered under the 1st Amendment. If such behavior is considered within the realm of 'the rule of conduct', does it really make it right? And can ethics and morals really go hand in hand?"

Keating: Freedom of speech has its limits; certain forms of speech are restricted but you'd need an attorney to look into this one.

Darcy from Breakenridge, Col. wrote, "I would have no problem stepping in on an abusive situation, but I find it difficult to step into a social situation that is annoying but not harming anyone (the kids or cell phone situations). Is it appropriate to say something if someone is doing something you just don't like? Where is the line of freedom? Who am I to tell anyone there actions are inappropriate? Should I just be worried about my action?"

Keating:Tolerance is a lynchpin of society; it's a loss when individuals from different backgrounds can't compromise with one another in social settings. But it is also a loss for children and adults when their behavior falls far outside the norm and no one informs them about it. They may continue to behave in ways that bother people and suffer negative evaluations because of it.

Kelly from Lake Tahoe, Calif. wrote, "My sister hires illegal immigrants to do her yardwork. This makes me angry, because I am opposed to illegal immigration. I find that it has changed our relationship, because I fee so strongly about this. I don't know what to do. Help?

Keating: It sounds like you feel responsible for your sister's actions. You are not; they are hers.

Harvey asked, "Why is it any worse for a person sitting by themselves on a cell phone call then a group of 2 or more people in a conversation that can be overheard?"

Keating: GOOD question. Most people assume its because cell phones provoke users to speak in an usually loud voice. I think the reason is more than that.

I've been unable to find any controlled, laboratory studies testing these ideas so what follows is just a guess. When people occupy a common space -- say, in a restaurant, an elevator, a waiting room -- they also share a common fate. What happens in that space happens to all -- people hear, see, and experience common things -- background music, for instance. We naturally monitor those in the room at both conscious and nonconscious levels. Cell phone conversations wreck that formula. There is a presence on the end of the cell phone that shares a separate fate -- one that is out of our control. The extra discomfort we feel in response to cell phone conversations (as opposed to face-to-face conversations) may have to do with the fact that the new technology psychologically insulates the pair on the phone from the common fate individuals in the shared territory suffer or enjoy.

Leslie from Gulfport, Miss., asked, "My son has autism and was just diagnosed a few months ago. We have always taken him out to eat with us and have always gotten stares and little comments about my son's outbursts. It even went as far as a woman telling me, 'You need to control your child.' I feel that he should be able to go out to eat just like anyone else. I know that a loud child can be annoying to some, but what should parents with special little ones do?"

Keating: You do indeed have a very special little boy; there is a lot the rest of us could learn from him.

I would suggest a response like this:

"Yes, I am sorry we are a little loud today. Let me introduce you to my son …"

This response should help smooth over the social disruption. Why? Apologies work -- they are powerful social glues. And introducing your son to the irate patron will help that person connect with your son and see him as a unique human being who is trying his best to control his behavior.

You may also want to check with a behavioral therapist for some training techniques that would be specific to reinforcing good restaurant behavior. These techniques can work quite well with developmentally challenged children.

Tarrah from Liberty, Mo., asked, "There are a group of four girls who are in one of my law classes, and they are constantly bickering and complaining. They talk 'crap' on some people and even the teacher. It is starting to affect my grade and my willingness to go to that class. What should I say to them, or should I even say anything at all?"

Keating: What's interesting about your comment is that the group of four bother you so much. Their negativity seems to be having a pretty big impact on your mood. And you've got a real dilemma here -- you don't have much control over this situation and that alone is probably hard on you.

Here's what I'd do. First, decide what your goal is.

If your goal is to create a better atmosphere in the class for you, try this:

Sit far away from the group of four (greater distance gives them less impact). Bring something to class that makes you happy -- a photo, a special coffee mug, a letter that makes you feel good about you … anything like that. When the girls start talking "crap," do your best to focus your attention on the special item you have brought (don't look at the negativity on their faces and try not to listen to them).

One more thing -- think about why their comments threaten you so much. Do you take them personally? Do you think some of the comments unfortunately have merit? Are you all too willing to be distracted because you are not doing as well as you would like in the class?

Rebecca from Cleveland asked, "I'm an active churchgoer and can be seen at the same pew every Sunday. I truly enjoy church, but what I don't enjoy is the unruly children whose parents allow them to run up and down the aisles, play noisily, and [they] scream when they are told to be quiet. Now, I understand when it is an infant and that it is hard for a 2- to 3-year-old, but I'm at a loss of what to do. I feel if I say something I'm unchristian, and yet the parents do little … to stop this behavior. I want to say something to the pastor, but again, [is that] unchristian? So what would you do? Most everyone just allows it to happen week after week."

Keating: When children's behavior is really over the top, they are viewed poorly, their parents are poorly regarded, and that is of no benefit to anyone.

If you don't know the parents, you could approach them in a friendly manner, introduce yourself and say, "It is wonderful to see you and your little boy in church. But I sometimes have trouble concentrating on what the pastor says when children run around. It would be great if you could ask your son to sit quietly. I'd appreciate that so much."

You are likely to gain compliance if you are nonaggressive, direct (give the specifics of what you want, which is "sit quietly"), give the reason why (you have trouble concentrating), and don't phrase things in a question format that could be challenged.

If that doesn't work, go to the next level and ask your pastor to intervene. Your pastor would likely make an excellent go-between.

Michael from Flint, Mich., wrote, "I have two friends who are a couple. They are always grabbing one another or just always touching to the point it looks just silly and childish. I have called them on it, and I get the claws from the girl and get excuses from the guy. They do this everywhere. They do not see anything wrong with it. Even when we go somewhere he has to sit next to her so he can touch her. If he is in the back seat and she is in front he has to reach around and play with her. There is no way to get through to them; its annoying. It draws attention -- the wrong kind. Keep in mind one is in her late 30s and he is in his early 40s. It's not like they are teenagers. How would you get through to them that this is just not cool?"

Keating: Many of us have felt your pain!

The signaling that the couple is engaged in shouts, "This is all about us -- and you are excluded!"

They may not recognize that this kind of behavior is read by others as a sort of rejection. If they are truly your friends, they will understand when you say, "I think you and Sally are a great couple but sometimes I feel left out of our friendship when you and Sally touch a lot. May we talk about this?"

Here you are confirming their special bond (not competing with it) and being honest about your feelings. You are also drawing out their thoughts. I'd speak with each one separately about it so they don't have the opportunity to face you down with a united front.