Ethical Quote Of The Week: Relationship Advice Columnist Carolyn Hax


“[I]t’s time you made the acquaintance of an institution we all must embrace at some point in life: the thankless task. That’s how you file away changing a baby’s diaper, paying your taxes, visiting a relative turned cranky from infirmities, throwing in extra toward the tip because everyone else left the table. You do these because they’re the right thing to do, even though babies don’t sit up and say thanks for the squeaky-clean butt.”

—–Syndicated advice columnist and natural-born ethics whiz Carolyn Hax, answering a young woman’s question regarding the proper response to someone who should have thanked her for a kindness, but did not.

The letter writer was a high school athlete who, like most high school students today, had never been introduced to the satirical wisdom of philosopher/humorist Ambrose Bierce in his indispensable “The Devil’s Dictionary.”  The young woman had organized a senior night tribute to a graduating teammate, who then expressed no gratitude after the event.

“I am not sure whether or when I should broach the subject. Am I being needy and selfish, or do I have a legitimate case for feeling disowned?” she queried Hax.

As she is about 98% of the time, the columnist was spot on in her response. Doing good things and right things do not assume some kind of quid pro quo, cosmic or otherwise, in this  world or a subsequent one. Learning to feel good about doing the right thing whether you are praised, rewarded, thanked, or derive any tangible benefits yourself is one of the hardest lesson on the way to ethical living, and one of the most important. No, you shouldn’t assume that you will be treated unfairly, as Bierce suggests. As he meant to warn you, however, you shouldn’t be surprised, either.

Do not expect karma, or justice, or thanks—don’t even hold out for credit. Just figure out the right thing to do–how you would want to be treated, how you wish everyone would act, the conduct that will make society better for everyone by solving problems or making them bearable—and do it. Those who don’t understand that it’s also right to reciprocate by exhibiting recognition and gratitude  haven’t figured things out yet, and their ethics alarms are jammed.

Be glad yours are in good repair.

11 thoughts on “Ethical Quote Of The Week: Relationship Advice Columnist Carolyn Hax

  1. Jack,
    “As she is about 98% of the time, the columnist was spot on in her response.”

    Is that higher or lower than your percentage rate?

  2. Well, the young woman learned a hard lesson about her so called friend. Some people will just act like jerks even if you have gone out of your way to do something special for them. It’s ok to have hurt feelings about such episodes but unwise to confront them with their lack of gratitude. Best to move on and forego ruminating about their lack of gratitude.

    • The ungrateful teammate wasn’t a friend, the LW had done it to thank the MVP anyway. It’s so much easier, especially as a self-centered teen, to skip thanking someone who isn’t liked. It is being a bad sport, which will rebound later in other ways. Sadly getting no thanks means making that effort is dwindling so much. My mother is so disappointed when she never hears back about wedding gifts, were they rude or ignorant about thank you notes/ Miss Otis Regrets…

      • I don’t know how you found out that the unlikable team mate was the MVP but I stand corrected about her being a friend. Either way the senior girl was being a jerk.

        • The first paragraph of the letter said “high school sports team that had only one senior this year. Nobody is particularly fond of this player, but she is important to the success of the team” If she was senior of the team and important to their wins, that makes her a departing star. No, they didn’t say MVP, but putting together that big a send-off makes her as important as a MVP, at least for the game/party. I don;t think the problem was about whatever official honors the player got, but if a party organizer deserves a dome gartitude for their effort. It could have been over appreciating a good post prom party when she was queen. Sadly so few are even taught about thank yous and thank you notes, so there are unnecessary hurt feelings today.

  3. In this case it didn’t matter, as the author pointed out, because the teammate was graduating, and therefore nothing could be done. However, the author also did point out that while there was a chance to make things right or if there was an ongoing relationship then an aggrieved person might want to speak up. In this case there was neither, so asking for thanks or recognition was a waste of effort.

    Being ethical and doing the right thing doesn’t mean being a doormat or going the extra mile when not asked to. If someone clearly dislikes you or just barely tolerates you and pats themselves on the back for even that modicum of toleration, or ignores sincere efforts, you are within your rights to be “busy” or “unavailable” when they are looking for help and to do the minimum required.

    I think the examples given by the author of things to do because it’s the right thing to do are a mixed bag. Of course you change your own baby’s diaper, the baby’s your responsibility. Of course you pay your taxes, not to do so could have criminal repercussions. You are NOT required to pay extra toward the tip because everyone else played you for a sucker and booked, especially if you are not a regular in the place and the skinny, bored waitress who waited 10 minutes to even hand you a menu and got your order wrong is never going to see you again. You’re also well within your rights to very quickly say “can’t make it, gotta run,” if someone brings up visiting Momma Lift (“Throw Momma From the Train”) in the nursing home that smells like a giant fart.

    I’m not saying evade your responsibilities, but it’s also your responsibility to avoid being taken advantage of. There’s nothing wrong with your guard going up if someone says “You’re usually pretty easygoing about these things so…” or if the phone rings and the first words out of the person’s mouth are “Are you busy this weekend?” because the next thing they say will be a request for some unpaid labor – can you help clean out the attic, trim the hedges, etc. Clean your own damn attic, and next time don’t let the hedges grow so long you need help trimming them.

    Oh, and if you do something on your own initiative that the person didn’t ask you to do, and then you get ignored, that’s on you. A whole YEAR of one page I belong to was devoted to discussion of a musician’s handling of the raising of approximately $7K for a charity she supported. She didn’t ask for anyone to organize a fundraising effort. She didn’t even ask fans to contribute to this particular charity. However, certain of the fans did just that and raised this not-inconsiderable amount. They then asked if the check could be presented to her personally. When she said no, they became offended and accused her of all kinds of wrong attitudes. Pushback from her management just made things worse. The fact is that they did something good in the hopes of securing face time with the artist, and that wasn’t for sale.

    • Good post, Steve. And I agree that Hax could have chosen better examples…the diaper one was especially poor, except that she was alluding to the frequent parents lament, “I’ve done all this for you, and what thanks do I get?”

      I’d use the exchange in “Field of Dreams,” when Ray asks, “What’s in it for me?” and Shoeless Joe says…”Is that why you did this? For you/”

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