How far do you need to go when lending a hand to a neighbor?
A reader we’re calling Monty who lives in New England wrote that he regularly likes to help out his elderly neighbors. Sometimes the help involves shoveling their sidewalks and steps after a snowstorm. Occasionally, he will help carry bags of groceries when he sees a neighbor unloading the car. Monty wrote that he likes to help out someone who needs the help and he also does it because he would like to think his neighbors would do the same for him.
Even when the help has gotten a bit more involved and included use of tools to put together a piece of furniture or to saw up a fallen tree branch after a storm, Monty has stepped in.
But Monty wrote that while he enjoys helping out, he doesn’t like to linger and “chit chat” after the work is done. And this is where Monty’s question about the right thing to do comes into play.
“One of my neighbors always insists that I sit and talk once the chore is done,” wrote Monty. “He’s a bit older and can’t do some of the things he used to do himself, so he gives me a call and I go over to help. I’m glad to help him out.”
Monty indicated that as the work is being done, he and the neighbor engage in long discussions about everything from the neighborhood and sports to politics and personal finances.
But whenever Monty tries to pack up and go home after the work is done, this neighbor insists he stay and talk for a while more. Occasionally, when Monty says he has to go home, the neighbor will respond with something like: “So now you’re too good to sit and talk?”
“I don’t want to insult him and I don’t want to feel bad about leaving,” wrote Monty. He just doesn’t enjoying sitting around chatting when he could be doing other stuff. “Is it wrong for me to tell him that I’m glad to help, but I don’t want to hang out and talk after the work is done?”
There could be all sorts of reasons Monty’s neighbor wants to continue talking. He may be a genuinely gregarious person. He may also be lonely and crave company. But Monty has no obligation to stick around and talk if he doesn’t want to. That he regularly responds to requests for help, seems to enjoy helping out, and talks with his neighbor while the work is being done is a good thing and suggests Monty is a good neighbor.
The right thing for Monty to do is to thank his neighbor for the invitation to sit and chat, but to decline the offer if he really would prefer not to. Monty should feel no guilt or remorse about doing this. And the right thing for Monty’s neighbor is to refrain from the comments that suggest Monty is doing something wrong by not wanting to sit around and talk. That Monty took the time to help should be more than enough to suggest to his neighbor that he cares about him enough to want to help.
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.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter @jseglin