A real estate developer recently purchased a multifamily house in a neighborhood comprised of single-family and multifamily homes. The house the developer purchased was a three-family that had fallen into significant disrepair. Many neighbors were relieved when they discovered that the new owner didn't plan to tear the house down completely, but instead to gut it and create three condominiums that he would sell to new owners.
Still, the gutting and redesign would be significant and the trucks and dumpsters going in and out of the neighborhood would affect traffic and parking, as well as create noise and a bit of a mess. To try to address any concerns that neighbors might have, the developer dropped off letters to neighbors inviting them to an open house on a Saturday morning at his property's site.
In the letter, the developer made clear he intended to keep only three units in the house and to knock down an old garage behind the house to make way for six parking spaces. He also indicated that he would be applying for a zoning variance to extend the back of the house a bit to increase the footprint of one of the three condos, but that the extension would go into the existing backyard. In his letter he asked neighbors to RSVP and gave them a phone number and email to use for those purposes.
Strictly speaking, an RSVP is a request for a reply, whether you plan to attend. But the developer added the phrase "if you plan to attend" after the RSVP, which seemed to suggest he only wanted to hear from those who planned to come.
On the Monday after the open house was to occur, a neighbor who had emailed the developer that he would be out of town and couldn't make the open house ran into him and asked how the open house went.
"We didn't have it," he responded, "since no one RSVP'd.
"I RSVP'd," the neighbor reminded him.
"I meant no one said they were coming," he said. "But one neighbor emailed us late on Saturday to tell us the she was upset because several people were waiting in the cold to attend the open house."
Later, the neighbor asked around and found out who the person was who had emailed the developer with her disappointment.
"I'm not liking him too much," she said. "He should have shown up once he announced the open house, even if we didn't respond."
Her neighbor wasn't so sure, wondering whether she and others were obligated to RSVP if they planned to show up or if the developer was obligated to show up regardless. "What was the right thing to do here?" he asks.
The neighbors should have responded to the invitation if they planned to intend. They have no real right to be angry if they didn't and then no one showed up. But if the developer's intent was to build good will among the neighbors abutting his property, the right thing would have been for him to show up regardless. The potential of wasting the trip would have been outweighed by the possibility of meeting some neighbors who failed at basic etiquette, but who decided to show up nonetheless.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a 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.
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