Members of an online neighborhood group in the Northeast regularly contribute to the site on topics ranging from area yard sales and illegally parked cars to scant turnout at the local polling site and great local dining as well as assorted other items that might be of interest to the group.
Recently, the neighborhood’s U.S. mail deliverer, who had delivered mail and packages to the neighborhood for more than two decades, retired and a new deliverer took up the route. Neighbors noticed that it took a while for the new deliverer to get used to the route since the house numbers are a bit quirky. Packages delivered to the wrong address got redelivered. Where the veteran deliverer had always gotten mail to the boxes before noon, the new deliverer’s drop-offs were much later in the afternoon, often into the early evening hours. But the new deliverer seemed to get better at getting things to the right place as she learned the new route.
A few weeks ago, a reader we’re calling Pat wrote that he read a post on the neighborhood online group from a neighbor who reported that the new deliverer asked people to turn on their porch lights when it gets dark so she could better see their mailboxes as she delivered their mail.
Most commenters on the post readily agreed this was a simple and thoughtful task. Pat, however, wondered if it was really his responsibility to turn on the light. “If she’s concerned about the dark, why doesn’t she just deliver the mail in the morning?” Pat asked, remembering that their old mail deliverer had always had mail in boxes before noon. Pat’s not sure he will remember to turn on his porch light or to turn it off if the mail is delivered particularly late. “That’s a lot of wasted electricity,” he noted. Pat asked if he was wrong to decline to participate in the new mailbox illumination effort.
I won’t comment on why the new deliverer gets the mail in boxes much later than the former person. For all I know, something changed at the post office where she doesn’t get the mail to deliver as early as he did. Or, given that she’s still new to the route, it just might take her longer to get everything delivered. As a customer, I continue to appreciate when postal workers do their jobs well, sometimes going out of their way to ensure that mail arrives in a timely fashion.
But the answer to Pat’s question is that no, he’s not wrong by choosing not to participate. Neither are his neighbor’s wrong to turn on their porch lights to let it shine on their mailboxes.
The deliverer is doing the right thing by trying to learn the route and do her job well. Some of the neighbors are doing the right thing by trying to be thoughtful to her as she goes about doing that job.
It’s a thoughtful gesture to make the deliverer’s job a bit easier and perhaps safer by lighting the way, but there’s no ethical obligation for Pat or other neighbors to oblige if they choose not to.
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 www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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