Sunday, March 10, 2024

Is silence golden?

In celebrating someone’s accomplishment, should you point out a mistake she’s made?

A long-time reader from North Carolina who we’re calling Rosalind wrote to report that she’d just finished reading a book that raised the question. She wants to know if she should report an error she noticed while reading.

The book was written by Rosalind’s distant older cousin. They’d met a few times when they were teenagers, but Rosalind doesn’t think they’ve had any contact in more than 60 years. Rosalind’s older sister had read the cousin’s book, enjoyed it, and wrote to their cousin to congratulate her.

After hearing about the book from her sister, Rosalind, checked out a copy from her local library and found it to be a well-written and enjoyable read about her marriage to a controversial and well-known theatrical producer in New York City.

“As I read the book, I considered reaching out and giving my cousin positive feedback on the book too,” wrote Rosalind. That many of the plays the cousin’s husband had produced were “cutting edge” and not shows that she “as a conservative” would be likely to consider seeing gave Rosalind some pause, but then she decided she could simply recognize her cousin’s accomplishment in writing the book.

“Here’s the hitch,” wrote Rosalind. In the acknowledgments, her cousin wrote that her parents “would have been please to know that I, like them, wrote a book.” Clearly, the cousin meant to write “pleased” rather than “please.”

Rosalind would like to write her cousin to praise her work but also to point out the typo in case she doesn’t know about it already and might be able to fix it in future printings. “If she doesn’t know it exists, however, my pointing it out could be a source of some irritation” instead of any “relative joy” (Rosalind’s pun) of hearing from a long-lost cousin.

Rosalind wrote that her spouse says she is honest to a fault. Nevertheless, Rosalind believes that pointing out the typo could be appreciated by her cousin. She’s concerned, however, that she might be making much ado about nothing and should forget about pointing out the typo.

“What do you think?” Rosalind asked me.

Years ago, I wrote about a college librarian I knew who was crushed after being corrected on her pronunciation of English words by a student. She wasn’t crushed because the student had corrected her, but rather because she clearly had been mispronouncing words for years and no one had ever said anything to her. Generally speaking, people appreciate learning about an error they’ve made, especially if they might be able to do something about it in the future.

The right thing, I believe, is for Rosalind to mention the typo to her cousin. It likely shouldn’t be the first thing Rosalind mentions. Instead, she can lead off her note about how well-written and enjoyable a read the book was. I would imagine Rosalind might also want to add a note or two with selected highlights of what she’s been up to over the past six decades. As long as the pointing out of the typo isn’t presented as a gotcha-type moment or a scolding about imprecision or a suggestion that one typo ruined the whole book, I would hope that Rosalind’s cousin would appreciate the sentiment with which the notation is delivered.

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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