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I know it’s wrong to read someone else’s texts or emails. But is it really wrong? Sometimes I wonder if some level of social media snooping isn’t a natural, inevitable, even healthy part of life.
I once found out something very important about a man’s character when he left his email open on my computer. I needed to know this thing and it would forever alter my idea of him. I had a truer, more realistic knowledge of who he was that helped me navigate the next six years. Of course, I am aware that in some technical way it was a moral violation for me to read those emails — a better person signs off, and I’ve only ever done it just that once — but how can I regret it? I can’t really inhabit the idea that it was wrong, since the benefits were so obvious and bountiful.
Most of the time, in situations like that, your imagination is worse than the reality. You will find that the ex-girlfriend someone swears is just a friend really is just a friend, that your fantasies and embellishments and paranoias are only that. But for those few times you unearth something — you stumble on a side of someone you haven’t seen, you learn about a fact or situation you are actually helped by knowing — it seems that the violation is worth it. The moral dubiousness of reading someone’s email is eclipsed by the magnitude of whatever you just found out or, you know, the interestingness of it.
I think the problem may be the assumption that there is privacy when there isn’t. It might be better to assume that emails may be read, that there is no written communication that is inured to viewing, that messages on Facebook or Instagram can be glimpsed, that texts almost inevitably will be.
Some of my friends seem to me weirdly oblivious to the fact that their wives or girlfriends know, for instance, the passcode to their phone (in a recentish study in the UK, more than half of the respondents admitted to knowing their partner’s passcode, and a third of the women admitted to secretly reading texts, Facebook messages etc). They also do not see how easy it is to glance over innocently and see a text come in and learn a great deal. I hear friends marvelling, “How could she have known that?” when it was obvious to me that how she knew it was just normal peripheral vision. The illusion that texts are private, that only the owner of the phone sees them, is one we as a culture seem to be very invested in upholding — but it’s obviously untrue. Anyone sitting next to you in a car can read at least the name of the sender and the beginning of a text if you are not contorting your body in some special way to hide it. We seem to believe we are in a bubble privately communing with our phones, so vivid and mesmerising is their siren hold over us, but the normal rules of time and space persist.
In any event, knowledge flows. Shoulders are peered over. Messages are clicked on by unintended viewers. A friend’s wife read X-rated Facebook messages sent to him by a besotted ex shortly after they got married. It sounded like there was some sort of assignation in the air, though in fact the expectation or desire was purely one-sided, and entirely theoretical. My friend had given this ex no encouragement, or maybe had simply out of curiosity wanted to see how far she would go in her fantasies. His wife was furious. Eventually she calmed down. But he accepted the idea that all his messages, emails, and texts would be more or less available to her, and let her read everything if she pursued it. This seems sanguine and wise: if someone wants to survey their kingdom, they will.
One has to admit that it’s kind of fascinating to see how your consort expresses himself or herself when you are not around; even if there are no secrets, no tangible thing to be learnt, one shouldn’t underestimate even the idle curiosity to see more of someone. It is, the devil’s advocate could argue, a way of knowing them better, of seeing other sides of them, of understanding them more deeply, a natural extension of desire. It is like the secret wish of safari-goers in open Jeeps, you want to see the lion in his natural habitat, observing him when he feels unobserved. You want the lion in nature. He is much more beautiful and exhilarating than at the zoo. It is, one could reassure the snooped upon, a sign of love (though, to be honest, they may find that more ominous than reassuring).
Someone very sensible with admirable self-restraint once said to me, “Why read texts if you know something in them will probably or almost definitely upset you?” But that logic eludes me and, if they are honest, a large number of other people. Very rarely do the imperatives of self-protection win out over the need to know, or even the vague desire to see.
Once when I was very, very young I read a shoebox of love letters from a boyfriend to an ex of his. I learnt a lot: his love for me was not that different from his love for her; love letters sent to another person sound sillier than love letters sent to you, raising uncomfortable issues about transitoriness and delusion. One thing I did not learn was not to read things that would hurt you.
A tween I know who I’ll call Rose was recently being bullied and ganged up on by a dramatic and insecure friend. This friend was blocking her and unblocking her on Instagram, ricocheting between “I love you” and “I hate you” in the course of five minutes, and then denouncing her in private messages to everyone they knew. Rose knew this girl’s Facebook password and was monitoring all these messages. She read all the lies her former friend was telling, her complaints and mini-character assassination. On one hand, this was obviously an unhealthy occupation, on the other, who could blame her, if knowledge seemed like power, if tracking this ex-friend’s exhaustive and demented campaign gave her the feeling of a modicum of control? If there is something pervasive and upsetting going on — a friend denouncing you, a flirtation, an affair — it is very natural to want to know its contours, to reveal the threat.
There are healthy individuals who believe that you shouldn’t knowingly enter into situations where you will be bruised or hurt by something, but those healthy individuals neglect the compulsion to know, the desire, maybe, to be bruised by those things. There is, if we are honest, a weird pleasure in being jealous or almost jealous, in confronting one’s fantasies, in coming up against how unknowable even the very closest people to you are. It’s the surprise or confirmation you are after, the pure jolt of information, even of the most trivial or innocuous variety.
It would maybe be better if we could accept the idea that nothing is private, or rather that everything is private-ish. It’s probably more practical to keep in mind that someone may peruse your texts, or Facebook messages, or email, that the possibility hovers temptingly, and the illusion of secret space is partial and incomplete, however lovely or convenient that illusion can seem. We would like to feel while texting an ex-boyfriend after a nice lunch that no one is reading it, that there is some independent, wholly intimate space like, say, the thoughts in your head, but there isn’t, not really.
If you are having a fun and intimate and revelatory conversation with a friend over a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant, you are aware that the people on either side of you might be casually eavesdropping. Likewise, you should be aware that the people around you might be casually glancing at your computer while your Facebook messages are open. It doesn’t necessarily change or inhibit the conversation; it just operates on some subliminal level, this knowledge. We are all a little bit watched.
One could even argue that not being watched is another kind of bad thing. At a house by the sea, a friend of mine was watering barrels spilling over with trumpet flowers. She had been married to her husband — let’s call him Rob — for 25 years. I was telling her about reading someone’s texts and she said, “It would never even occur to me to read Rob’s texts. There wouldn’t be anything interesting there.” Somehow the absolute security of this depressed me. All of the threats and fascination had dissolved into this great cottony comfort. What does it mean to no longer be vigilant about how someone expresses himself to other people, to lose all overly intense curiosity, to feel like all the mysteries have been solved? Personally, I would rather be glancing at someone’s phone over his shoulder in bed while pretending to read a novel.
Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is ‘In Praise of Messy Lives’ (Canongate, £12.99)
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