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Last fall, I received an email from a columnist inToronto who noticed that I used a column she had written as one of the online readings for a class I teach on column on and opinion writing. The columnist
wrote to me to ask about the course as well as how I incorporated the readings
into the course.
I didn't know the columnist, but she had taken the time
to write to me with a reasonable question. It struck me that the civil thing to
do was to respond. So, I responded by email. I try to respond to emails I
regularly receive from readers of the column, even the angrier ones.
This raises the question, however, of whether it's wrong
for the receiver of a message not to respond to someone when they reach out in
a thoughtful manner whether it is by phone, conventional post, email or other
avenues. Or, given the shift and breadth of communication venues over the past
couple of decades, is it wrong for the sender to assume that the receiver is
only civil if response is via the same communications venue?
A few weeks ago, for example, after reading an editorial
that a former student wrote at a college where I used to teach, I sent him an
email congratulating him on the piece and also giving him some background I
believed he might find useful given the topic of his column. No response.
The silence would have made any devotee of Miss Manners
boil (if boiling in itself weren't an inappropriate response). C'mon. I know
that texting has replaced email as the immediate communication conduit of
choice, but how hard is it to acknowledge a kind gesture put forth in an email?
If you wrote to me via email and, rather than respond to
you in kind, I decided to find you on a networking site like LinkedIn to see if
we could connect, would that be uncivil? Or maybe I decide to see if you're on
Twitter so I can follow your posts, see if there's anything interesting, and
have a way to respond to you and you to me if we have a common interest.
Perhaps my choice was driven by a desire to set up a method of having an
ongoing conversation rather than a one-off email.
Many people still respond directly via the same method of
communication when you contact them. But given the new options that are
available, that's not the only way to respond. The right thing may still be to
acknowledge when someone reaches out to us, but there are many right routes
that can be taken to make such acknowledgements.
My former student's decision to find me on Twitter and
follow me to engage in occasional conversation was a right thing to do.
Increasingly, one person's email could be another's tweet.
A reader from Southern California and her husband are
replacing the old fence around three sides of their property. Her husband has
taken on the project himself and does not want his wife's daily involvement.
But, she writes, she still has to deal with the many issues that have come up
Originally, the escape of a neighbor's dog who is a
"notorious digger" was blamed for the fence construction. But even
after the dog was found, the neighbors decided a new fence was in order. Well,
all of the neighbors except for the one couple who wanted nothing to do with
the fence rebuilding and "whose yard is basically a junkyard" and
have "exhibited threatening behavior in the past," my reader writes.
Most neighbors in her area do not know each other well.
But she and her husband do know their neighbors. Initially, the erection of the
fence was to be a project among all but one - the threatening one -- of the
abutting neighbors. That's no longer the case.
"Everyone wanted in in the beginning," my
reader writes. "But they all disappeared when help was needed. Now no one
remembers that they were informed that the fence would go up."
She observes that the "spirit of cooperation has
evaporated." Given that her husband has taken it on himself to make sure
the fence is erected, she wonders if it is her responsibility to try to restore
this cooperative spirit among neighbors originally gung-ho for the project.
If the neighbors made a commitment to help with the costs
and labor of the fence repair, then they have an obligation to follow through
on that commitment. My reader and her husband should not have to shoulder the
burden of completing the project.
But my reader cannot force her neighbors to change their
behavior. If the completion of the fence has become important to only her and
her husband, then the right thing is for them to decide whether they want to
complete it or, like their abutting neighbors, forget about the whole project.
Without a legal agreement to jointly build the fence, the
reader and her husband have only the word of their neighbors to go on. That
should have been enough, but as anyone who has ever been involved in a group
project of any kind knows, there are often those who simply don't follow
through. The choice is then to scuttle the whole project because not everyone
participates or to move forward and get the job done.
Following through on their initial commitment to get the
fence completed is a choice my reader and her husband made. While it would be
good to think that her neighbors might rally and a "cooperative
spirit" could be reinstated, it is not my reader's responsibility to force
It is often true that good fences do make good neighbors
. . . or, at the very least, make the neighbors more tolerable.
The elderly parents of a reader in the Southwest are suffering from dementia. Her mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and is in need of care to help her get around the house. "She is not a very neat eater, but I'm just glad that she is eating," the reader writes.
The reader's father is responsible for taking care of his wife most of the time because he does not permit the caretakers his daughter has hired to help him. "He has always been very judgmental of other people and their appearance, and quite vocal about it," writes his daughter.
Her father has begun to get verbally abusive to her mother, the reader believes. "He talks in her presence about how frustrated he is with her abilities - how she spills her drinks, can't walk right, or is always packing to go somewhere. He rolls his eyes and acts superior to her. He is quite demeaning to her."
The reader tells her father that he is being "completely rude to mom," but when she does he forgets within minutes and "continues his diatribe."
"I would like to shock him by being very rude to him," she says, "but he would forget in minutes and start again. If I do it often enough he might eventually get the point."
"My dad's dementia does not allow him to remember our talks and his pledges to 'do better'. He has no patience to learn any new communication techniques in this stage of his life.
"Doctors have tried talking to him but he blows everyone off. I had his legal and pastoral counselor talk to him and they left it that dad has 'free agency' and can do whatever he likes."
"Where," she asks "does my responsibility for respecting my parents and my effort to protect my mother become a moral obligation to protect one over the other?"
The reader's father can indeed do whatever he likes as long as he doesn't bring harm to his wife or others in the process.
His daughter seems to have two concerns: changing her father's behavior and making sure that her mother is safe and cared for. The right thing is to focus on the latter of these concerns.
While the daughter clearly seems to care for her parents and wants them to live as good a life as they can given their medical issues, she cannot change the way her father behaves. She can, however, work to make sure that her mother gets the help and assistance she needs, whether this is through home health care or at a health care facility that specializes in caring for residents with her mother's illness.
Hearing her father castigate her mother or those who care for her is clearly discomforting. Few people want to see their parents behave inappropriately. But the energy spent trying to change her father is likely better directed toward an immediate need that can be addressed - namely, her mother's care.
If you suspect a friend is skirting the law, should you drop a dime or keep your mouth shut and go your merry way? That's what a reader in the Midwest would like to know after a friend of 30-some years confided in him that he receives checks from Social Security.
The friend's wife has also received Social Security checks for about 30 years now, the reader writes, but "I wholeheartedly believe she deserves them." The reader has doubts, however, about her husband's "reported health problems."
Apparently, the friend is capable of working around his home - "on ladders painting, spreading gravel down his driveway, repairing plumbing, electrical and a multitude of other physical chores, but he insists that what he gets from the government is his due."
The reader admits that he is "not a doctor, nor do I profess to be." But to him, "common sense dictates" that his friend is not disabled.
"If I have a feeling the he is milking the system, is it my responsibility to report a friend to the appropriate authorities?" the reader asks. "Or should I leave well enough alone and expect his doctors to determine his limitations with regards to being on the dole?"
It irks the reader if, friend or no friend, someone has the ability to work as hard as this friend of his has done at home, but then is not expected to work at a job.
He has confronted his friend directly. "Because I have argued my point with him, we have gone our separate ways," he says. "I can't abide by this sort of dishonest behavior!"
The reader acknowledges his definition of what disabled is may be quite different than the medical or legal profession's definition Still, he has decided that the best thing to do is pass his opinion on anonymously to the proper authority and "let them determine what's right in regard to this person's abilities."
If the reader is looking for affirmation from me for his anonymous "turning in" of his friend to the authorities, he won't get it.
It may irk him that his friend collects Social Security payments while he is still capable of doing chores around his house, but as the reader points out, he has no knowledge of what this fellow's disability is. All he knows is that his doctors continue to validate his status.
By his own admission, the reader acknowledges that he has no real sense of how a disabled status is determined and yet he has decided that his friend is faking it while his friend's wife has a legitimate case.
In other words, the reader has absolutely no idea of whether this friend is defrauding the system. Yet he has taken it upon himself to alert the authorities with little proof aside from his observation that the guy can climb a ladder.
If he had more substantive proof of fraud, that would be one thing. But without that proof and an acknowledgement that he doesn't know what he's talking about, the right thing is for the reader to back off and leave the fellow alone. Just because something irks us doesn't always mean it rises to the level of unethical, or in this case, illegal behavior.
Last fall, a reader was working as the personal assistant to an author who ran a regular series of writing workshops. The reader's primary task was to help select and edit pieces of writing from various workshop participants that would be published as a book.
She dutifully set about the task and sent off a completed manuscript to the printer. When the pages came back from the printer to be proofread, my reader and her boss noticed many errors they had missed before sending the book off to the printer. Neither of them are professional copyeditors "by any stretch," my reader says. So she took it upon herself to make sure to hire someone to proofread the pages properly.
Because the errors were caught at this later stage of the production process, the author owed the printer an additional $300 to fix the mistakes before the final books were produced.
"As the editor, I felt responsible for this error and gave my boss a check to cover the expense," my reader says. A couple of weeks later the author called my reader to tell her that the check wasn't necessary and that she had torn it up. My reader chalked that up as "a very kind gesture."
Three months later, my reader was offered a new job. She gave her boss a month's notice. They agreed that instead of drawing her regular salary for the final month, she would invoice her for the specific hours she worked.
She submitted her final invoice for $150. No payment arrived. When she saw her boss, she told her that she would put the check in the mail. More weeks passed and still no check. My reader then contacted her former boss's assistant who handles her finances to see when the check would be sent.
That assistant responded that because the boss had never cashed the $300 check my reader had given her, she would like to "call it even." The other assistant ended by apologizing for being the bearer of this news and asked my reader, "Let me know what you think."
"I feel hurt and frustrated by this arrangement," my reader tells me. "We had a verbal agreement that she was not going to accept the $300."
"What is the right thing to do in this situation?" she asks. "Which of us is in the wrong?"
Not once, but twice did the former boss commit to not holding my reader responsible for the $300 in extra printing costs. First, when she told her she was tearing up the check. And then again when she told her the check would be in the mail for the money owed.
The boss was in the wrong not to pay what she owed.
The right thing is for my reader to let the former boss's other assistant know exactly what she thinks and to tell her that an agreement is an agreement, that it is not OK for the boss to renege on her financial commitment, and that she expects to be paid. And the right thing for the former boss is to get a check into the mail for the money she owes as soon as possible.