BOSTON. — If we ever adopt a national motto, it will probably be: ''Mind Your Own Business.'' Not a very poetic sentiment, nor very patriotic. But it's succinct, and to the point.
Americans value the right to be left alone, certainly by their government and often by each other. We are easily outraged by intrusion into our lives, invasion of our privacy. The word ''busybody'' is not a compliment within our borders.
This is what two young servers in Seattle learned when an extremely pregnant customer ordered a drink in their restaurant.
In the now famous Case of the Pink Daiquiri, the servers asked her twice if she was ''sure'' she wanted a drink. One ripped the label off a bottle of beer that warned about the dangers of alcohol to a fetus, placed it on the table and said, ''This is just in case you didn't know.''
The outraged customer complained about being treated ''like a child abuser'' and the servers were fired. Instead of serving a pink daiquiri, they got a pink slip. Mind your own business.
Case closed? Well, not exactly. There is another American value that hasn't quite achieved the status of a motto but is every bit as widely shared. That's the notion that somehow we're connected. As a community we have some concern for each other's well-being.
This is why the state of Washington required the sign that hung in the same restaurant lobby warning about the effects of alcohol on a fetus.
This is why in 41 states, bar owners can be held responsible for the accident of a driver who tanks up at their stop. This is why in 23 states party-givers can even be responsible for party-goers.
And this may be partly why the two young servers interfered in the life of the would-be daiquiri drinker. One person's busybody is another's caring soul.
There is no clear line that says when private behavior is a fair
matter of public concern and when public interest in private life becomes intrusion. In this country, we try to respect freedom but avoid the charge of neglect. We dislike coercion but feel some responsibility for each other.
The compromise we have settled on is the catch-all phrase called ''education.'' Society, we say, is supposed to give each citizen the tools to understand what's best for them. Citizens in turn are supposed to use them.
The most popular educational tool these days is the ubiquitous ''warning.'' Americans are inundated by hundreds of little signs to let the consumer beware. Warnings on movies and medicine, on beer bottles and cigarette packs, and even on jobs.
That compromise, too, can be shaky. In the past month, the Supreme Court ruled in the Johnson Controls case that as long as women workers were warned about the dangers of lead to the fetus, they had the same rights as men to risky jobs. Does this mean that a warning is enough? Is it all an employer has to do?
The same Supreme Court said it will decide if the warning on the cigarette pack protects manufacturers from lawsuits by sick smokers or their families. Can you sell anything, even something lethal, as long as you warn the consumer? Can consumers blame the manufacturer for their own decisions?
The Case of the Pink Daiquiri is even trickier. Teetotalers notwithstanding, there is such a thing as moderate drinking. There is also such a thing as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
At least one mother has already sued (unsuccessfully) a distillery claiming that she was hooked on Jim Beam. It's possible that one could sue a bar owner or even server, claiming they are as guilty for a genetic disaster as for a traffic accident. The same duo who were fired for putting a warning on the table could be sued for not warning a woman.
From what I have read, the Seattle servers were intoxicated with self-righteousness. The almost-mother was sipping guilt. They were obnoxious; she was defensive.
The woman, who gave birth to a healthy son the next week, had reportedly been careful in her pregnancy. The worst fetal damage is done early. Any woman banned at a bar can drink at home. They shouldn't have hassled her so nastily. She shouldn't have gotten them fired. It was probably a case for Miss Manners.
These are delicate negotiations that go on as part of a bigger negotiation. We want to be treated as independent adults and be protected from danger. We are expected to care for each other and to respect each other's privacy.
''Education'' is still the best compromise we've got in this conflict. So the next time a server tries to impress a customer with the wisdom on the beer label, offer some careful words in return.
Caution: Even warnings can be dangerous.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.