Speak up or stay silent?

The other morning, I was at the supermarket checking out my groceries. “Excuse me sir, but there’s something gross hanging from your nose,” said the lovely, young cashier.

I expressed my gratitude immediately, and rubbed my cheek. She nodded and smiled.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m on my way to Kensington Palace to see the royal baby, Prince Louis Arthur Charles of Cambridge, and I would’ve been mortified. The queen would’ve proclaimed ‘I am snot amused.’ “

She laughed. “I never know whether to mention it, whether it would make someone angry or upset,” she said. “You don’t look like a serial killer, so I figured I’d give it a shot.’ “

I was glad she told me. I can’t imagine anyone would be upset.

If I had opted to use one of the store’s many self-checkout kiosks, as nearly everyone else was doing, I’d still be walking around with a slimy booger stuck to my face. And I would’ve missed out on this delightful human interaction. For that very reason, I still prefer going to a bank teller than an ATM and buying concert/theater tickets at the box office rather than from online sales outlets. It also helps keep people employed.

People are interacting less and less these days, that’s no secret. Fewer young adults, I’ve found, are capable of carrying on a conversation. It’s high-time restaurants ban the use of cellphones; we’ve all seen a table where every family member is silent, staring at their phones, before, during and after their meal. But that’s a story for another day …

Getting back to dealing with embarrassing situations: If the cashier had spinach stuck between her teeth, would I have discreetly pointed it out? Probably. If someone exited the bathroom with a ream of toilet paper stuck to his/her shoe, would I have spoken up? Maybe; they would probably discover it themself fairly quickly. If a young woman was on the subway and she was unaware that her undies were showing, would I let her know? No way; I would ask a female commuter to intervene or just ignore it.

It’s easier to stay quiet and let someone else do the dirty work, but I bet most people would want to know that something was hanging from their schnoz, that food was visible on their teeth, that their dress was wedged into their pantyhose.

Many years ago, I was invited to speak to a journalism class at a Boston college. A few seconds into my talk, a male student shouted “zipper.” I looked down; my fly was open and my boxers were visible. Talk about awkward! The kids and the professor acted more maturely than I would have. I zipped up and cracked, “Thanks. No big thing.” Everyone laughed. Humor, I’ve discovered, usually diffuses delicate situations and puts people at ease. But today a flippant double-entendre like that would likely be met with scorn. If the zipper thing happened tomorrow, I’d probably just close the front door and continue my talk.

So-called experts and psychiatric professionals recommend discreetly letting people know that their breath stinks or they have a sock stuck on the back of their shirt. The person likely is unaware and knowing could prevent further embarrassment, The key is to do it in private, using levity if warranted.

Food on a tooth or dried mucus under the nose is one thing, but what about more sensitive subjects? Would a female co-worker alert me if my fly was open? I’d be surprised if that happened.

In the past, I had no problem informing female co-workers of wardrobe malfunctions, and they appeared grateful. I would not do it today. I would now approach a woman in the office and ask “Can you tell Sally her bum is showing?” The world has changed, probably for the better. But to be honest, I find myself resisting complimenting a female co-worker on the way she looks, fearful that my words might be misinterpreted or she might be offended, My confusion says more about me than society in general, I suppose. One more story for another day. …

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