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Is it ever too late to return a borrowed item?

Many of us have found ourselves in need of something — a tool, a Book, a baking dish — that we likely only need for a short time and for which we don’t want to lay out the cash. I’ve borrowed a portable chop saw when I grew tired of sawing planks of wood by hand to repair an aging deck. A friend or two has borrowed my car when theirs was in the shop and their insurance didn’t cover a rental. My luck has been pretty good in terms of stuff being returned.

Not everyone is so fortunate. Two questions arise regularly from readers. If a borrower has not returned an item for quite some time, is it OK to ask for it back? And is it ever too late to return an item if a great deal of time has passed?

It would be unlikely for someone to keep a car or truck for a year rather than a week. But with items like garden tools or books, the urgency of return might not feel as great.

Nevertheless, the right thing is to always return the stuff we borrow.

If a lender would like his or her item returned, there’s nothing rude about asking if the borrower can return it. Granted, you shouldn’t have to ask. If a friend or colleague is kind enough to lend you something, it should fall upon the borrower to return it in a timely matter. But if it’s not returned, go ahead and ask.

Sometimes, borrowers simply forget they have borrowed something. And occasionally, the lender has forgotten the loan has been made so no request for return has been issued.

While I mentioned I have been fortunate over the years to have items I’ve lent out returned, the one area where this has not always been the case has been in the loan of books. Most books I lend out are returned in a timely fashion. Some are not. I probably should, but I don’t keep a list of the books I’ve loaned out and I often forget what I’ve loaned to whom, leaving me to consider some books lost for good.

But a while back, I received an email from a student who had taken a class with me at the college where I used to teach. She had tracked me down at my new school and asked if she could pay me a visit. Such requests aren’t unusual. Sometimes a student wants a recommendation and sometimes he or she just wants to catch up.

After she arrived at my office, the student pulled out a long book of dance criticism I apparently had loaned her six or seven years earlier. Embarrassed, she told me that she had meant to return it for years, but with moving around so much for graduate school and jobs, she had never gotten around to it.

She did the right thing even though so much time had passed and I appreciated the return even though I had forgotten about the book which after telling her to keep it she now owns without any obligation to return. The student reminded me that it’s never too late to do what’s right.

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 and director of the communications program 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 [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


This post first appeared on The Right Thing, please read the originial post: here

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Is it ever too late to return a borrowed item?


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