The Humanist Dilemma: Should I Inform a Ranter that the Object of His Rant Heard It?

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Speaker Phone Faux Pas: I was having breakfast in a diner with a friend, George, when I got a call from a mutual acquaintance, Fred, who’s a lawyer and the mayor of our small town. I answered the call on speaker and, without warning, Fred began complaining about George, saying that he is a royal pain in the butt and no one wants to work with him because he’s so difficult. George heard every word. I quickly ended the call and felt awful.

Now I’m wondering whether I should tell Fred that he was on speaker and that George heard what he said. Or should I just let it pass? George acted as though nothing happened, so I think he would rather not make an issue of it.

I’d prefer not to let Fred know I did such a stupid thing since I want to stay on his good side, and I don’t think it would really make a difference either way in George and Fred’s relationship (which was not good in the first place but would probably be even worse if all this was out in the open).

—To Tell or Not To Tell?

Dear Tell,

Oh, the joys of modern technology! I suspect many people have overheard speakerphone exchanges they weren’t meant to hear, been involved in misdirected or “reply all” e-mails that caused embarrassment, or had an unfortunate private photo forwarded far and wide. It’s a brave new world and each of us must learn how to navigate it.

There is the possibility that George will confront Fred with what he heard and how he heard it, and then you will be in Fred’s  ill favor for broadcasting what he thought was a confidential exchange. In that case, you will also be damned both for having him on speaker and for not informing him that George was auditing.

However, as you noted, it seems as though George would rather let the remarks go unremarked. He might actually take the criticism to heart and work on getting along with others. So rather than cause a bigger ruckus, let it pass. The damage can’t be undone but it might, as you noted, be exacerbated by full disclosure. In addition, and perhaps more pertinently, Fred is a lawyer and a politician. He should be aware of and cautious about speaker phones. Many people will ask whether they are on speaker and who is in the room before they launch into a tirade.

You had no warning that Fred was going to tear into George when you answered his call. I suppose you might have instantly switched off the speaker or cut off the call with “Can’t talk now, can I call you back?” or even by hanging up and letting Fred think it dropped. In any case, it’s too late now.

But you can learn from this for future reference: First, it’s rude to take a call when you’re in a restaurant or meeting with someone. Better to ignore the caller, or pick up and announce you’re in the middle of something and will call back—and perhaps mention who you’re with if it’s relevant (as it was here, because George and Fred know each other).

Second, please don’t routinely put calls on speaker. Reserve that for when you explicitly want others to hear, and after you’ve asked the caller for permission and informed them who is present.

Finally, be aware that you may be on speaker (or your e-mails and social media posts may be forwarded), accidentally or intentionally. No matter what you do to avoid gaffes or what the person on the other end tells you (or doesn’t tell you), you simply have to be careful of what you say or write, and recognize that no matter how cautious you are, things could still be intercepted by the wrong eyes and ears.

When things do go awry, it’s not the end of the world—just part of today’s world. Perhaps one day you and George and even Fred might be able to laugh about this. While that old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” may be more apt than ever, it’s human nature to concur with the version credited to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.”