Is it OK to look at more than you’re asked to when a partner asks for your help?
A few weeks ago, a reader we’re calling Vera was asked to do a favor by her younger sister. Vera’s sister lived across the country and had been experiencing some medical issues. She had received a letter from her physician, which she found confusing. So she asked for Vera’s help interpreting, since Vera, while not a physician, worked in the medical field.
Vera quickly agreed to take a look at the letter to see if she might be able to help. So her sister took a photo of the letter with her cell phone and emailed it as an attachment to Vera. After Vera received the letter, she opened the attachment and then found it difficult to read the letter since the image was blurry.
On past occasions when Vera had a technology challenge, she turned to her spouse for help since he, while not a technology professional, was fairly adept at figuring things out. After trying to enlarge, shrink, crop and do whatever she could think to do with her sister’s letter to make it more readable, she told her spouse about her challenge and asked if he thought he could help make the letter more readable.
He agreed and Vera logged onto her email so he could access the email with the letter attached. In doing so, Vera realized that her spouse could see all of her other emails along with their subject lines in her inbox.
“Should I have asked him not to read the other emails or subjects in my inbox while he was helping me out?” Vera asked. “Or is it safe to assume that everyone knows they shouldn’t do that?”
No, of course, it’s not safe to assume that people won’t snoop around if you give them the opportunity to and ask them not to. Then again, even if you ask them only to look at that one email, it’s still not a given they will limit themselves to doing that.
Would it be nice to believe that you can trust people to only do what you ask them to do without snooping around for more information when it’s right at their fingertips? Yes, but that wasn’t Vera’s question.
If Vera didn’t trust that her spouse would limit himself, then she had options. She could have asked her sister to email a clearer copy of the letter. Or she could have asked her to read her the letter over the phone or share a copy over Zoom or a similar platform.
This doesn’t mean that Vera’s spouse was a snoop. Whether he was depends a lot on the trust the two of them have in one another to do the right thing. If Vera regularly had let her spouse read her email, then he might have no reason to believe he shouldn’t this time. If Vera was concerned that he focus only on her sister’s email, then the right thing would have been to ask him to do so. And once he agreed to try to help, the right thing was for her spouse to honor that request, which, according to Vera, he did.
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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