By Jay Remer, the Etiquette Guy
Only a short while ago, a friend commented on how disgusted he was looking out his office window and watching a group of people smoking, huddled around the front entrance to another building. What irked him was the careless disposal of their cigarette butts onto the sidewalk or into the street. This act is a crystal clear example of disrespect. But this arrogance - to which many smokers feel they are entitled - is not the entire picture. One might ask, “Why doesn’t the building provide suitable cigarette butt disposal receptacles; why don’t the smokers put their butts in their cigarette packs; why, why, why NOT?”
The list of arguments and suggestions are numerous. The basic principle of respect is what this simple act ignores completely. These folks have made a conscious choice to jeopardise their own health, which is their right. Being a reformed smoker, I sympathise with those who smoke and respect their choice. Quitting smoking requires a very big commitment and is much easier said than done.
There is also plenty of proof of the hazards of second hand smoke, hence the reason smokers are forced out of doors in the first place. Frankly, standing outside the entrance to a building and smoking does create an unpleasant atmosphere for others entering that building, another form of disrespect for others.
Flicking cigarette and cigar butts on the ground illustrates yet another case where entitlement takes hold. The thought process goes along these lines: “If I have to be inconvenienced to the point of being forced outside to have a smoke, I have every right to flick my butt into the street.” For some it is such a knee jerk reaction that it doesn’t seem to qualify as a conscious choice as much as a simple involuntary reaction. This is where disrespect is elevated to the level of arrogance.
This is why in front of some store fronts, cigarette butts can be seen strewn all over the sidewalk - even in my small town of St Andrews, New Brunswick - directly in front of a butt receptacle. Yet this behavior is evident in cities and towns everywhere. As a result, the responsibility to keep the sidewalks free of litter falls on the shoulders of the shopkeepers themselves, some of whom are oblivious to the eyesore and ignorant of the fact that their lack of caring is in and of itself, a form of disrespect.
I know that I make a point of picking up cigarete butts in front of and behind my building when the culprits are actually smoking. In some cases this has a positive effect, but not always.
One can stroll down the avenues of bustling New York City and see cigarette butts whisked away by an army of street cleaners. However, in smaller towns and villages, local pride can speak volumes to visitors on whom their entire economies depend.
This harkens back to the days when dogs could freely roam the street of cities and owners were not responsible for cleaning up after them. In fact, it wasn’t even considered necessary. Your dog would do its business in the street and the street sweeper would remove it in due course. I remember clearly the distinctive stench in cities like New York and especially Paris. Eventually, laws were enacted banning such irresponsible practices and the difference to these cities was dramatic. For the most part today people pride themselves in looking after their dogs responsibly.
Legislating human behavior has historically proven to be ineffective except in such obvious cases as traffic laws and human rights. Even then, people are constantly pushing the envelope. What, then, can we do?
One thing companies can do is to remind their employees that they are representing the company even when they are not working. Allowing workers to smoke during work outside an office building does indicate a lack of respect for the community if inadequate space and receptacles are not provided.
Therefore, it comes down to each of us who smoke to take the moment it requires to leave our surroundings the way we found them. Much like the sign in the airplane washroom which asks each occupant to wipe the sink so the next passenger has a clean place to wash their hands, we should also leave the streets and sidewalks as clean as they were when we walked onto them initially.
Please keep in mind that flicking a lighted cigarette butt anywhere is a potential fire hazard. It also is an opportunity to burn an animal’s feet, like a dog walking along the street where a cigarette butt has just been carelessly flicked.
Flicking your butt in the street, while driving a car, riding in a boat or even walking along a sandy beach or rocky coastline is just plain wrong. If this one careless thoughtless act were to be eliminated from our daily lives, it would send ripples of civility everywhere.
Jay Remer is the Etiquette Guy, and is certified by the Protocol School of Washington as a consultant for corporate etiquette and international protocol.