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The Jewish Ethicist: Open Eavesdropping

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Can I listen in on clients who don't know I understand their language?

Q. My company does sales demos for foreign companies. Very often the representatives make private comments among themselves, assuming we don't understand. In fact, very often our salespeople do understand the customer's language. Is it permissible for us to "eavesdrop" on these conversations which are held openly in our presence?

A. Using a "private" language for private conversation is hardly a new phenomenon. We find in Scripture that Joseph's brothers assumed that the Egyptian viceroy (actually Joseph himself) spoke no Hebrew and took advantage of this fact to hold a private conversation in his presence (Genesis 42:23). Generations later, the representatives of King Chizkayahu begged the Assyrian envoy Ravshaqe to speak with them in Aramaic so that the common people, who spoke Hebrew, would not understand (II Kings 18:26).

Given the fact that your clients have a reasonable expectation that their conversation is private, listening in is definitely an ethical problem. This is only slightly better than giving them a "private" conference room but then listening in through the keyhole.

In fact, even if the clients are aware that one of your people can understand them (perhaps this individual once gave a sales presentation in their language) but begin what is obviously a private conversation, the appropriate response is to gently remind them that their conversation is not private. One discreet way of doing this is to ask them if they want to be left alone for a few minutes so that your people will not be able to hear them.

Your obligation to reveal your knowledge may depend on the subject of the conversation. If they are merely discussing technical aspects of the presentation and they are speaking their own language for convenience, then there is no reason to inform them of your "eavesdropping." But as soon as they start discussing attitudes and other details that would be relevant for bargaining and negotiations, you should avoid listening in. You should either offer them privacy or alternatively have your "interpreter" leave the room.

Here, as is so often the case, ethics and etiquette really overlap. It is not really polite to speak in a language unknown to others, when there is a common language; good manners requires asking permission before holding a private conversation. If your customers had asked permission to speak "privately" in their own language, this would then cue you to suggest that their foreign-language conversation would not necessarily be private and offer to let them have a few minutes alone.

Our tradition tells us of one of the great Talmudic sages, Rav Safra, who had some merchandise to sell. When the purchasers came and made him an offer, Rav Safra didn't respond at all! The customers concluded that their offer was inadequate and raised the amount. But the real reason Rav Safra didn't respond was that he was reciting the daily "Shema" and couldn't interrupt his prayer. When he finished this important mitzvah, he refused to benefit from the mistake and accepted the original offer, since he would have done so absent the misunderstanding. In this way he sought to be one who "walks in earnestness and acts with righteousness, and speak truths in his heart" (Psalms 15:2).

While Rav Safra went beyond the strict letter of the law, his example should teach us that while it is permissible to drive a hard bargain, we should eschew any unfair advantage in negotiations.

SOURCE: Rashi on Makkot 24a.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

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