Upset Aunt Wonders, Aren’t All Letters Private?

By Amy Dickinson | June 10th, 2022

Aunt is devastated when private letter is read

woman writing letter - photo by Info723783, Dreamstime. “Upset Aunt,” devastated when someone reads a letter she considered private, asks, “Aren’t all letters private?” See what Ask Amy says.

“Upset Aunt,” devastated when someone reads a letter she considered private, asks advice columnist Amy Dickinson: “Aren’t all letters private?” See what Ask Amy says.

Dear Amy:

In 2020, my nephew, “TJ,” graduated from high school.

My husband and I are especially close to him. Due to COVID there was no graduation party for him.

During lockdown, I sent TJ a card and enclosed money.

Later, I sent a personal, heartfelt letter to TJ, wanting him to know how much I enjoyed seeing him grow, recounting memories we shared, giving him unsolicited advice about college (that he could take or leave), etc.

TJ called to thank me for the gift and the letter.

Months later my sister-in-law “Teri” mentioned to me that she was in TJ’s room and a letter was open on his nightstand. She said she saw it was from me and read it.

She said she thought it was so nice and that it made her cry.

I was speechless!

The issue for me is I feel the letter was private between TJ and myself.

I was raised in a household where we never opened mail that was not addressed to us because the contents of any mail was considered the private information of the recipient. Aren’t all letters private?

Now, two years later, TJ’s brother is graduating from high school and I had planned to write a similar letter for him, but now I feel constrained on how much of my personal feelings I want to put into the letter.

Truth be told, the joy of doing another letter is gone for me since I know it may be read by others.

I want to get your thoughts on whether I am overreacting.

– Upset Aunt

Dear Upset: Yes, you are overreacting. By a mile-and-a-half.

When people receive letters and cards of congratulation to mark a happy occasion, they often leave the cards and letters out and share the content of these with family members (unless the recipient is explicitly asked not to).

According to your account, this letter was lying open in your nephew’s room. It was not sealed, and your sister-in-law did not “open” it. She merely read it, as I maintain just about anyone would do. (You obviously wouldn’t, but I believe that most people would.)

My overall point is that when a letter leaves the writer’s heart, mind, pen and home – it becomes the physical property of the person who receives it, and that person can leave it lying out for others to see, put it into a scrapbook, post a photo of it on social media, sell it at an auction, or throw it away.

It is best to enter a correspondence assuming that others may see what you write, and to choose your words carefully.

Your sister-in-law was moved by the contents of this letter to the point of tears. She was thoughtful enough to tell you so, and your response is to consider denying your other nephew this gift of your time and wisdom.

This seems an extremely unkind reaction.

If you choose to write to your younger nephew, you can ask him to keep the contents of your letter private.

Want to get even more life tips from Amy? Read more of her advice columns here!

In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart – ranging from someone wondering, “Aren’t all letters private?” to DNA surprises. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2021 by Amy Dickinson

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