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Modern Manners: Tips for having good etiquette during a drought

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File: A sprinkler sprays water on a lawn at Golden Gate Park on January 29, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A sprinkler sprays water on a lawn at Golden Gate Park on January 29, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

By now, most Californians know we are in the midst of a long and severe drought, but how do we get through it?

By now, most Californians know we are in the midst of a long and severe drought, but how do we get through it?

Some people live by the mantra of "If it yellow, let it mellow," while other have no qualms about watering their lawns at high noon. What might be comfortable to some when it comes to conservation may be untenable for others.

For some tips on how to navigate the world of drought consciousness among our friends, coworkers and neighbors, we turn to advice columnist Amy Alkon, author of the book "Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck."

What do you do at home to conserve water on a daily basis?

"This is a big deal, one of the biggest places where we waste water is in the bathroom, and so to be quite frank, if I don't have guests coming over and there's nothing, uh, solid, in the toilet I don't flush very often."

What's the best way to navigate the "If it's yellow, let it mellow" mantra?

"The truth is we have a strong aversion to others' bodily fluids, we evolved this way as a way to protect ourselves against disease. This is why we're so grossed out by these things, it's a protective thing. So, it's very upsetting to some people if you do this and it's very important to balance that. If people are upset if you live in a household with a bunch of people who are grossed out, you might just have to flush."

What if you're in a public restroom. Is it OK to let the yellow mellow?

"Oh no. You absolutely flush. People get so upset by this. You're not leaving a Post-It note for the person behind you, so they don't know why you're doing that, they just think you're rude and it's disgusting. When you're in a public place, that's really something where you have to be considerate.

"But there are so many ways that we can be conservationist about this. For example, I don't leave the water running when I brush my teeth, and I'm 50, I have to dye my hair now. I use a low flow shower head except for that one time a month when I dye my hair and need that real power to rinse the stuff out. So I unscrew the low flow one and I screw in the old shower head. 

"All these things — washing dishes in a basin — there are so many ways if you just think about it. Yes we may have aversions to leaving the yellow in the bowl, but there are so many ways to make up for that."

What about washing your hands after, that could be a needless use of water. There's gels you can use and other things you can clean your hands with!

"You're right, but the thing is we have to remember how other people have this strong aversion to disease and if you do that, you'll gross out anybody else in the bathroom. They're not going to want to shake your hand, do business with you. So there are these times where we have to balance other people's feelings. At root of manners is empathy, and so there are times you just have to waste a little water so people aren't made sick by you forever."

One of our listeners asked her work colleagues if they could designate a mellow yellow bathroom stall. Is that a good idea?

"I like the spirit of it, but the problem is that there are a few diseases, not many, spread by urine and immunocompromised people can get infected. You don't know who in your workplace is immunosuppressed, it upsets people, so you really need to flush in the workplace."

What about the guy who keeps his sprinklers running at high noon?

"Scolding people is not an effective way to get them to change. The truth is the best time to water is before 8 a.m. One way to get the message through to him – since many people don't actually realize there's a drought because their idea of media is "Keeping Up With The Karadashians" — you put out a flyer that does not target just one person. It's a helpful thing for the whole neighborhood that gives some tips about wasting water, how to save water, and you can also post it on phone poles and deliver it around. You could just deliver it to eight people in your block, just so that guy doesn't feel targeted. He's more likely to change."

"There's one other thing you can do, which is use people's desire to be seen going green, there's actually a status thing, so if you can come up with a sticker people can put on their mailbox with the ways they've gone green, that's a way that people can feel they want to join that and look good." 

One of our listeners wrote in and said she stopped watering her lawn to save water, but now her neighbors are complaining that her brown lawn is lowering their home values. What should she do?

"Her neighbors' worry is understandable. This is great what she's doing, but at root of manners is empathy, so she needs to care about her neighbors' fear. This is the emotional and social environments, these are environments, too, so you show concern by tearing up your lawn and planting native plants and using mulch and sand to landscape. This is a new way of thinking and there's stuff on the DWP's website, some photos, and they'll even give you financial credit for doing it, but you have to apply for it first."

Listener Jill Johnson says she recently told some college students who were running the water in a public restroom while applying their makeup that there is a drought. Their response was "We don't care, we're not from here." How do we deal with this rampant entitlement when it comes to water?

"There are times when its effective to tell people what to do, or to suggest that they do the right thing — and there are times that it isn't effective. This is basically like saying don't you idiots know there's a drought on? So of course they're going to respond like that. Maybe they don't care. So we need to focus on what we can change, not scolding people in the moment who don't care, which does feel really good. What you can do is when you see something like that, use that moment to incite yourself to positive action somewhere else. You do an extra thing to conserve, you put out the word about artificial grass, you do something positive instead of just telling them off."

Thanks for all who contributed questions for our Modern Manners segment!

Post by KPCC.

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