Surreptitious Speaker Phone

Do I need the caller’s permission to put a call on the speakerphone?

Q. Do I need the caller’s permission to put a call on the speakerphone? Sometimes I want others in the office to hear, or I need the speakerphone in order to have freedom of movement yet others are present.

A. This is a classic “opt in, opt out” question: Is it my responsibility to avoid broadcasting the call unless the caller “opts in” to have the message heard? Or is it the caller’s responsibility to “opt out” and specify that the call is private?

The answer of Jewish tradition is clear: in matters relating to privacy and modesty, we need to adopt an “opt in” policy: you shouldn’t allow others to hear the call without informing the caller.

The Talmud states: When someone mentions something to a friend, the rule is “Don’t tell” until he tells you, “Tell.” We learn this principle from God Himself, Who carefully specified to Moshe which prophecies should be transmitted to the people and which ones were intended for only Moshe to hear.

Even if the subject of the conversation seems perfectly harmless and something that the caller wouldn’t seem to mind others hearing, we should respect his or her privacy. First of all, even if something is quite harmless a person might want out of modesty or embarrassment to keep it private. Just as important, a person might have very good reasons to fear that publicizing the conversation could work to his detriment.

Another important thing to remember is that a private conversation is not merely an exchange of information. It is a way of creating and strengthening personal contact. For this reason the Talmud tells us that we should avoid intruding on the privacy of a married couple even when we are sure they are not discussing “intimate” matters. True intimacy between husband and wife means openness and communication even in matters that are quite mundane, and the same holds true to a lesser extent among friends and colleagues.

Even if the caller knows that the speakerphone is on, if he or she starts to talk about something private, you should make a delicate reminder that others are present.

Jewish tradition teaches us to carefully respect the privacy of others and the intimacy of personal communications. In this way people are enabled to develop their selves and their friendships far from the spotlight of scrutiny.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Yoma 4b, Eiruvin 63b. “Chafetz Chaim” I:1 note 14.