Should I fess up about something I lost?

A friend is asking for a book back that she lent me 3 years ago. We have since moved house 3 times (and interstate) since then. Plus I’m pregnant, about to get married and have a baby. Like I give two hoots about a stupid book from 3 years ago. I don’t even remember if I gave it back to her - I can barely remember what I ate for dinner last night. Should I just fess up that I probably threw it away, or just ignore or offer to buy her a new one?

I can’t bring myself to spend any amount of money on a stupid Russell Brand book just on the principle of it.


Honesty has always been an integral part of my operation, really. – R. Brand
08-13-47-53-55 / 31


Hello Diner. Mr. Brand is indeed an acquired taste–and some live happy, sated lives never acquiring that taste. Being as he’s a fan of Chinese food, he displeases us a lot less than it seems he does you. At the very least, you can trust our impartiality on this matter.

Of course the best, most up-standing answer is to be diplomatic, and replace what was lent to you. You’d be in good company both in diplomacy and overdue books. First US President George Washington kept a book 221 years before the Mt. Vernon staff returned it. [1] His estate, however, did not have to pay the $300,000 fine, which is a luxury we can’t promise you.

But a simple answer is a bit bland for our taste, today. Besides, that makes for a very short Fortune, so let’s play with other possibilities just between friends–as a thought experiment, as scholars call it.

Keep in mind we’re venturing into the territory that is not quite ethical, so like pungent fish sauce, use lightly and light-heartedly. Your principles may forbid you from fattening Mr. Brand’s wallet, but do they keep you from lying? If they do, close your tab now. If not, read on.

Your friend asking you for a book she lent you three years ago tells us a few things:

  1. She doesn’t have it, so you probably haven’t returned it to her
  2. She remembers you borrowed it
  3. It’s important enough to her to ask for it back, but not important enough to miss it urgently

 

That means: ignoring her might just start a resentment that festers as long as her passion for Mr. Brand persists. We mentioned in another Fortune that disregarding someone does a number on their psyche. Our target today is to be a little manipulative–not straight up sadistic.

So what should you do to get out of trouble? What would not only make you seem faultless but also appear magnanimous?

To come up smelling like a freshly cooked meal, plead ignorance but overachieve in making amends. As you pointed out, forgetting is universally easy and is therefore easily forgivable.

“I completely forgot you ever lent it to me,” you would tell this friend. “But if you said I did, of course I trust you. Let me make it up to you.”

You would then rush off to your nearest local bookseller and purchase a gift card for a nice round number above what the book is worth. For a $19.99 book, give her $25. This accomplishes two things on top of making it up to your friend: it keeps your principles against spending any of your money on Mr. Brand (directly), and more importantly, it helps a local business. We can only hope that your friend will be inspired to purchase something new–and more importantly, something different.

For that, we can only say, good luck, Diner.

References:
[1] Flood, A. (2010, May 20). George Washington’s library book returned, 221 years later. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/may/20/george-washington-library-book