How Many Samples Are Too Many?

As ice cream season nears, Miss Conduct explains where to draw the line

Hello again, my little sloppy Joes and Josephines, and welcome to another installment of Asking for a Friend, the bimonthly column in which I pick apart all the pesky dining etiquette questions that keep you tossing and turning through the night. And today's burning Q is especially near and dear to my politeness-loving heart.

Quora's Claris Yap asks:

Is there a socially correct number of ice cream flavours you can try at the parlour before ordering?

Excellent question, Clar. Just by asking this gem you've proven yourself a thoughtful, well-meaning sampler, and for that, I thank you. We should all aspire to be as conscientious as dear Claris here.

Believe it or not, I've completed several tours of duty behind the glass case, spending entire teenage summers with my hands permanently stuck inside sticky tubs of double chocolate chunk. And, in my experience both behind and in front of the counter, sampling is a true test of free will.

Yes, you have the option of going all out bananas here, asking for tiny spoon after tiny spoon until your stomach aches and your teeth hurt, no longer interested in a cone. With the exception of grumpy servers and shops with strict (and generally posted) rules limiting sample counts, chances are you won't physically get cut off—the customer is always right, after all, and everyone involved wants you to be 100 percent satisfied with your purchase.

But therein lies the rub. The entire sampling system is dependent on the sampler regulating his or her own behavior—an unwritten contract between supplier and consumer, and it literally makes the world go round. Giving away the milk, as it turns out, doesn't actually deter someone from buying the cow.

That being said, establishing a set of sampling guidelines is a helpful way to ensure everybody gets their fair bite. After a 2010 case in which a Minnesota man was arrested on shoplifting charges for "sampling" .61 pounds of sausage and .85 pounds of beef jerky at a local grocery store, Dan Pashman, the food wiz behind popular podcast The Sporkful, put this issue to rest. Though he advised taking only two samples in a grocery store setting—one to test the waters, one to confirm before you buy—Pashman did bend when it came to everyone's favorite frozen treat.

Pashman suggested maxing out your taster tour at four or five, depending on the amount of flavors offered and the size of the line behind you. "I think there's a little more leeway, because each taste is a different flavor; it's essentially a different food that you're tasting," Pashman said. But, "If there's a massive line outside the door, then standing there and having 10 different samples is especially rude. Plus, it's more just putting the employee and the other customers through that inconvenience."

My take? At the end of the day, it's just ice cream—delicious, yes, but ultimately resulting in maybe 10 minutes of bliss, max. Just pick one already.

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