Sunday, May 26, 2019

Can I check my neighbor's mail for my own?

A month or so ago, a reader we're calling Brie was doing some gardening in the front yard of her house, which sits in a city neighborhood. About an hour into her work, Brie's next-door neighbor walked up to her with a stack of mail and told her that it had been delivered to her house by mistake.

"I meant to get these to you earlier," the neighbor told Brie. "But time just got away from me." The neighbor apologized, said she would try to be swifter in redelivering misdelivered mail in the future and walked away.

In the stack of a dozen or so envelopes were advertisements, a holiday card, a save-the-date card, and a handful of bills from a variety of utility companies. (Yes, some people including Brie still receive bills in hard copy by mail rather than online via email.) When Brie had a chance to examine the pile more closely, she saw that some of the mail dated back almost a year and a half.

Brie was upset that her neighbor never took the time to give her the mail. She was even more upset that it took her neighbor over a year to tell her about the mail. Brie now understood why a telephone bill she received a while back indicated she had missed a month's payment and why she had had to call a credit card company to ask it to forgive a late payment fee.

When the neighborhood's regular mail deliverer is on vacation, mail is often delivered to the wrong address. Other neighbors have regularly dropped off mail intended for Brie. Brie has done the same for them, including her next door neighbor.

"Now, I'm concerned," writes Brie. "What if she begins to stack up more of my mail and fails to get it to me for another year?"

Brie knows that her neighbor lives alone and travels for work quite a bit, so it's understandable that mail might pile up. Brie doesn't understand why the neighbor hasn't taken the time to be thoughtful by making sure she redirects any mail she mistakenly receives.

The postal service is responsible for the wrongly delivered mail, of course, and Brie and her neighbors should regularly report when mail is delivered to the wrong house. But Brie's neighbor should try harder to set things right when she can.

"Our mailboxes are not locked, so it would be simple for me to thumb through her mail to make sure nothing of mine is mixed in with hers," writes Brie. "Would this be wrong?"

Yes, going through someone else's mail without permission would be wrong. Brie can also choose to receive bills online, although she shouldn't have to do this because a neighbor is hoarding her mail. It would not be wrong for Brie to occasionally ask her neighbor if she received any mail meant for Brie. It also wouldn't be wrong for Brie to notify the post office whenever she receives wrongly delivered mail if she's truly worried about receiving bills on time.

The right thing is for the postal carrier, even the one covering for vacations, to deliver mail to the right house and for neighbors to be as thoughtful to one another as they would hope neighbors would be toward them. 

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. 

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