In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Polonius advises his son, Laertes, who is about to leave Denmark for France: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” I’m not confident that his advice was meant to be iron-clad, but it came to mind recently after hearing from a reader we’re calling Val.
Val wrote that a recent exchange with an old classmate left him perturbed. About a decade ago, when Val was a graduate student with scarce resources, his old classmate offered to give him the textbooks he had used for a course Val subsequently took.
“It was generous of him,” wrote Val. But a few weeks ago Val was taken aback to receive an email from the old friend asking him if he could return the books he had loaned to Val. Val was floored by the request, since it was never clear that the books had been on loan, and because so many years has passed since the transaction. Complicating the request further was that Val no longer had the books. He had passed them on to another student who was in need.
“Doesn’t this seem wrong?” Val wrote.
Val’s story reminds me of a story my parents once told me about how angry they were after a friend who had loaned my father a suit to interview for jobs when he was starting out had contacted them years later asking for a return of the suit. “Pretty nervy,” my father had said. The return request created a rift between my father and his friend that never fully healed and that he still talked about decades after the incident. He too couldn’t return the suit since he had long separated from it after several moves as he went along in his career.
As a kid, I always thought it was kind of severe for my father to allow a disagreement about a borrowed suit to upend a friendship. But then, he too was never clear that the suit was a loan rather than a gift to help out a friend.
Confusion over a loan vs. a gift gets at the issue in both Val’s and my father’s stories. Each misinterpreted a kindness as something other than what it was. There was no malice involved; it was simply a misunderstanding.
I’m a firm believer that it is OK to be both a borrower and lender. Lending something to a friend in need can be a great kindness. But the right thing to do when making a loan is for the lender to make it as clear as possible at the outset of the transaction that he or she or they would like whatever is being loaned to be returned when the borrower is through needing the item.
The right thing for Val to do is to tell his friend he misunderstood the book exchange and paid the favor forward to another student in need. His friend may be upset, but Val should be honest and let his friend decide how to respond. My hope is they will not let this misunderstanding get in the way of their friendship.
I wish my father had done the same. In the interest of following Polonius’ other well-known line from “Hamlet,” that “brevity is the soul of wit,” I’ll just end things here.
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.
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