Sunday, September 03, 2023

How do you respond to a new neighbor's gossip?

What’s the right thing to do when a resident new to your neighborhood mentions gossip she heard about a neighbor?

A reader we’re calling Rita was out walking when she saw a woman we’re calling Prudence walking up the stairs to her house. Prudence lived three doors down and across the street from Rita.

“Are you our new neighbor?” Rita asked Prudence. Prudence confirmed she and her partner had purchased the house and moved in a few weeks earlier to a newly built house in the old neighborhood.

“Would you like to see the house?” Prudence asked. Rita accepted the invitation and headed up the stairs to the front door of the house.

A quick tour and some small talk about where Prudence had lived before and how much she liked the new neighborhood followed. Rita offered to share any information about nearby stores and services Prudence might find useful.

Prudence thanked her and commented on how welcoming everyone in the neighborhood had been.

But she caught herself in her comment when it came to referencing, Simon, her neighbor directly next door. “Well, except for next door, but everyone has told me about him,” Prudence said.

Rita knew Simon. He had always been kind when it came to helping to clear a walk of snow or to say hello when she passed him by. Simon stayed to himself and rarely spent time outside of his house other than his backyard. But his house and yard were immaculately kept.

Rita knew that Simon had had some run-ins with parents of youngsters in the neighborhood who would run through his flower beds or leave their bicycles or scooters leaning up against the wall in his front yard. On at least one occasion, Simon yelled loudly at his neighbor’s children, which resulted in the parents calling the police to complain. Nothing came of the complaint and Simon continued to stay to himself and tend to his yard.

“I heard he’s a bit of a problem,” Prudence told Rita.

Rita responded that she’d never had an issue with Simon, but now believes she should have said more so Prudence’s view of him was not colored by others in the neighborhood who had a beef with him.

“Should I have said more?” Rita emailed me. “Should I have told Prudence how awful those little kids were? Or how the parents overreacted and began to speak ill of him to anyone who would listen?”

Rita did the right thing by responding just as she did to Prudence. She told her what she knew of Simon personally. Had she gone further, she likely would find herself spreading gossip about different neighbors, which may or may not have been true, since Rita had never actually seen the little boys trample Simon’s garden.

Simply nodding her head in agreement when Prudence said something about Simon would have been wrong. But by offering an honest assessment of her dealings with Simon she treated both Simon and Prudence with respect.

Rita wrote that she’d left Simon a plate of freshly baked cookies shortly after her exchange with Prudence, something she had done from time to time over the years. He was an older person living alone and Rita figured he could use some kindness from a neighbor.

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, emeritus, 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 to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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