In February, I received an email from M.F., a reader who lives in Mission Viejo, California. The subject line of the email was simply: “How are you?”
M.F. reminded me that he had written me 17 years ago after reading the column when it appeared in the Orange County Register. It seemed clear from his email that M.F. thought I worked for the Orange County Register at the time, which I never did. It was one of the newspapers that ran the column. Back then, I used the full names of readers who had written me, but a long time ago began using their initials or pseudonyms to help protect their identities since articles tend to have a long shelf life online.
“You were kind enough to mention my comments about your ethics column in a subsequent follow-up,” he wrote. Apparently, M.F. had been doing his regular search of his name on the internet “to make sure incorrect information doesn’t appear,” and our interaction came up in the results.
“I remember your kindness,” he wrote, and he then visited my website to see what I was up to. “I was happy to see that you are still writing.” M.F. closed by writing that he hoped his email finds me happy and healthy and that I “continue to do well.”
Many things have changed over the past 17 years. Back then, the column was syndicated by a different company. I was five years away from accepting an offer to teach at the university from which I’m about to retire. The character of Ted Lasso hadn’t been revealed to the world yet.
Doing some internet searching of my own, I discovered M.F. had written me about a column I wrote finding nothing wrong with people picking up recyclable cans from others’ town-issued recycling bins. He pointed out that such acts can divert funding from a municipality’s recycling efforts. M.F. made a valid point and I amended my advice to suggest that if a resident wanted to give their recyclable cans to someone other than the town, they should consider doing so directly rather than placing them in the receptacle issued by their town.
That original column on recycling to which M.F. responded remains the second most-viewed column on the website where I have posted columns after they have had their run since January 2006.
I mention M.F.’s February email not because of anything to do with recycling, however, but instead because he took the time to acknowledge my kindness for running his response. Such actions might appear small, but they can have an outsized impact. That readers like M.F. care enough to take the time to write even when they have no particular question or gripe sparks joy.
I ended the column where M.F.’s response was featured by acknowledging that I trusted I could count on M.F. and other readers “to do the right thing by continuing to share their wisdom with me.” Even 17 years later, that sentiment holds true.
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 www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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