We’ve all been there: your coworker, sibling, or partner is in the other room, and you can’t help but notice the constant buzz of their unattended phone. You could easily disregard the distraction... or you could just as easily take a quick glance at the screen—and risk spiraling into a wormhole of phone snooping. So, do you look?
If you’re like a lot of people… probably. Acting on the urge to snoop is fairly common behavior. A 2016 study concluded as many as one in five people snooped on at least one person’s phone within the last year. Snooping was ranked as the number one thing that bothered hosts about houseguests (tied with staying indefinitely) in a survey from HomeAdvisor. As one journalist who attempted to steal Mark Zuckerberg’s trash pointed out in 2018, even our garbage isn’t protected by the Constitution—meaning there’s nothing preventing nosy neighbors from rifling through your trash. So a whole lot of us are taking peeks at our friends’, lovers’, co-workers’, and family members’ devices, pill bottles, and junk.
Just because we have an opportunity to snoop doesn’t mean we should: Looking at someone else’s private correspondence or personal information is an invasion of privacy. A recent study associated snooping on romantic partners’ cell phones with emotional instability, an intention to break up, and conflicts within the relationship.
Luckily, an occasional peek around does not make a lifetime sneak, and there are steps you can take to curb your snooping ways.
Figure out what you’re looking for, and why.
Are you on the hunt for a G-chat on a coworker’s computer that confirms layoffs are coming? Does your partner frequently disappear for bouts of time and you’re looking to pin down their whereabouts? When we snoop, we’re almost always searching for more information, said behavioral relationship expert and life coach Tracy Crossley.
Snooping is often an impulse decision; people may not even be aware of what’s actually motivating them to secretly search, beyond the need to confirm some vague suspicions. If you often find yourself snooping (or are really tempted to), ask yourself what you’re truly hoping to achieve, Crossley said. “A lot of times, people don't know they're trying to avoid disappointment,” she said. “Be real and go, Why am I doing this? What am I hoping to get?”
Maybe the reason you’re peeking at papers on your boss’s desk boils down to a desire to excel at your job, and a fear that perhaps you aren’t nailing it right now. Be real with yourself and evaluate your own behaviors to determine whether your suspicions are really warranted, said Racine Henry, a New York City–based marriage and family therapist. “That level of being unsure can stem from some internal truth about [how] maybe you're not doing your job properly,” Henry said. “That insecurity lends itself to that paranoia, which we’re then seeking reassurance about.”
Instead of snooping, go directly to the source.
Rather than playing detective, it’s better to bring up your concerns outright: Ask your boss if they are happy with your work performance, or talk to your partner about whether you’re making them happy and fulfilling their needs. “One of the biggest issues I see with my clients is that they have poor communication,” said a professional snoop, the private investigator Darrin Giglio, chief investigator at North American Investigations. “Working through an issue together to address and validate feelings will be more productive than any snooping you could do.”
You also risk not getting the full truth when you snoop, he continued, so it’s better to address your worries directly. “I always say ‘when in doubt, check it out,’ which means address it head-on and talk it out, express your concerns, and you will be in a much better position than violating someone’s trust,” he said.
Of course, in some instances, addressing your concerns directly won’t be appropriate… but even then, you should fight the urge to nose around. If you have a hunch your coworkers are talking trash about you behind your back and a strong desire to peek through their DMs, it’s best not to snoop and to keep those suspicions to yourself unless you have some very solid evidence to back it up, Crossley said.
Trust your gut—but not necessarily in the way you might think.
If your suspicions still persist even after discussing your concerns, you could be onto something, said Jennine Estes, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego. Emotions are often signs that something is amiss—either with the other person, or with you—and should empower you to examine your feelings about your job, friendship, or relationship outright rather than snooping. Simply believing something is wrong doesn’t prove your suspicions, but it does point to larger issues—your partner could be acting shady, or you could be bringing your own insecurities to your partnership. “It is a difficult spot because people need to know what is going on and why they are feeling uneasy,” Estes said. “I won’t ever push someone to snoop. [But] it isn’t normal to feel so fearful in a relationship, and I will have them question what keeps them in a relationship that feels so unsafe.”
It’s worth noting that your discomfort alone is reason enough to exit or step back from a relationship. Even if you have endless reassurance from your partner that you have nothing to worry about, or you lack proof of wrongdoing, you don’t have to maintain a relationship that makes you feel uneasy.
Think of the consequences—and the parties affected.
Consider how your boss, partners or friends would feel if they knew you’d been snooping on them. Regardless of what you discover, the other party would likely feel betrayed and defensive, and won’t trust you going forward. “It doesn’t [help] you get ahead anywhere,” Crossley said. The other person may end the relationship altogether, or you may be fired. You’re fundamentally crossing a boundary, and could be veering into possessive, jealous, or controlling behavior.
It’s also worth considering that not only are you violating the privacy of the person you’re snooping on, you’re infringing on the person they’re communicating with, too. “When your colleagues email your boss, they’re assuming it’s private,” Ask a Manager advice columnist Alison Green wrote last year. “If your boss and one of your coworkers are emailing about, say, performance problems the coworker is having, it’s really crappy if you’re eavesdropping on that without their knowledge or permission.”
As you work on the deeper issues behind your urge to snoop, try to avoid situations where you’d be inclined or able to. Make a point to avert your eyes when new messages pop up on someone else’s phone, and turn away from your coworker’s monitor when they leave for meetings. If you’ve got the urge to search through a purse, backpack, or office, remove yourself from the situation altogether. Or rope in an accountability buddy, someone to text or call who can keep you on track if the urge to snoop arises.
Perhaps the most obvious and effective way to quell temptation is a childhood lesson: Treat others the way you’d want to be treated. “Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” Giglio said. “How would you feel if your privacy was violated, especially without justification?”
Know your snooping will never be justified.
Many people attempt to rationalize their snooping with excuses like “It won’t hurt anyone,” “I’m just curious,” “they left the tab with their email open on their computer,” “everyone does it,” or “I feel like something is wrong and I’m trying to protect myself.” There’s hardly ever a circumstance where snooping is warranted, Giglio said.
Regardless of how you defend your motives (and methods), you’ve crossed an ethical line—even if you feel the ends justify the means. “Don’t try to B.S. yourself with a legitimate excuse to make yourself feel better for this breach of trust,” Giglio said. “Curiosity and opportunity alone will never be justification.”
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