Sunday, July 30, 2017

Is it ever OK to peek at someone else's texts?

After a neighbor borrowed L.W.'s truck to haul debris to the town dump, he mentioned to L.W. that the truck was pulling to the right and that his tires seemed a bit worn.

"You really need to get that thing aligned and get some new tires," his neighbor mentioned to him after thanking him for the loan and returning the keys. "It's really not safe."

At first, L.W. was miffed that the neighbor complained after L.W. had done him the favor of lending him the truck. But then, after taking the truck for a ride, he realized his neighbor was right. So he called his nearby tire store to see if they had tires in stock for his truck. He was told it did, so he made an appointment to have the work done.

When he got to the store, there was a bit of a crowd, but a salesperson greeted him at the desk, looked up his appointment, and started the paperwork. During the transaction, the salesperson's cellphone rang. He picked it up, listened to the person on the other end of the call, hung up and placed his cellphone on the counter in front of L.W.

"Could you excuse me for a minute?" he asked L.W. "I need to check in on something in the garage."

The salesperson walked off, but left his cellphone. After several minutes of waiting, the cellphone made a dinging sound and L.W. noticed that a text message had popped up on his screen. A few seconds passed and then another text. Still another popped up a minute or so later. In short order, at least five text messages dinged up on the salesperson's cellphone screen.

L.W. was growing tired of waiting for the salesperson to return.

"I wondered if the texts might have something to do with why he was called away," writes L.W. "Maybe he needed the information being texted so he could finish up in the garage."

But L.W. was reluctant to read another person's texts, believing it to be an invasion of privacy.

"Was I wrong not to go find the guy and tell him about the texts?" asks L.W. "Should I have read them to see if they seemed like something he needed to get his work done?"

L.W. figures he could have read the text messages and if they didn't seem relevant to the guy's work, he could simply have said nothing. But if reading them might help the guy get his job done so he could return to get the paperwork for L.W.'s tires done, he figured he might have been doing both of them a favor.

While many might be tempted to take a peek at another person's text messages when no one is looking, the right thing is to respect the other person's privacy and mind your own business, whether it be a colleague, a date, a friend, or a salesperson at a tire store.

The salesperson shouldn't have left his phone lying on the counter. L.W. is right in thinking he might have needed the texts to finish up whatever it was he was called off to do. It's an awful feeling to be kept waiting, but that's no reason to read another person's text messages. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Scott Manas said...

No, it isn't. It's a clear invasion of privacy. Whether or not one has nothing to hide is irrelevant. It's an invasion of privacy, plain and simple.

William Jacobson said...

Ridiculous that we even have ask this question... Leave his phone alone. Its none of your business.

Can I skim some books from my friend's donation?

A reader we're calling Josh, owns a pickup truck. Josh seems a good enough fellow, indicating that in addition to using his truck as...