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Snooping has its uses. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Snooping has its uses. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMarch 14, 2024

Help Me Hera: How do I stop being the nosiest person alive?

Snooping has its uses. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Snooping has its uses. (Image: Tina Tiller)

I know it’s a bad trait but I can’t handle not knowing things. How do I stop being such a snoop?

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Dear Hera,

I am the nosiest person alive. This is probably my worst trait. I truly cannot handle not knowing things. There are, of course, many, many things a person should not snoop around and find: the legal names of people who wish to remain anonymous, the marital history of a bad professor (juicy, but like, super creepy to find out), decade-old tweets from random authors, junk in the drawer of a house I’m pet-sitting in. 

To be clear, I do not and would never do anything with this information. I hate having the information, because I’m worried I’ll accidentally spill that I know it to whomever it concerns (which happened once in my tween years). 

I know this is a terrible habit. How do I leave well enough alone and stop acting like a truffle pig when I see snooping potential? 

Yours truly,


a line of dice with blue dots

Dear Snoop,

As I was reading your letter, I couldn’t help noticing the thematic similarities to one of the greatest children’s books of all time, Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet is one of life’s constitutional busybodies, with an intense and unquenchable curiosity about other people’s lives. She writes:

“I’m going to find out everything about everybody and put it all in a book. The book is going to be called Secrets by Harriet M Welsch. I will also have photographs in it and maybe some medical charts if I can get them.”

Harriet discovers the secrets of everyone in her school and neighbourhood, and dutifully records them all in her spy notebook, alongside other “candid” observations (“If Marion Hawthorne doesn’t watch out, she’s going to grow up into a lady Hitler.”) When her notebook is discovered and read by the kids in her class, they ostracise her. 

There are many reasons to love Harriet the Spy. Not only is it a delightful and moving work of art, full of unforgettable one-liners and stunningly profound non-sequiturs, but it also has a complex moral arc.  Harriet eventually makes amends with her classmates. But she doesn’t do so by gaining a deeper respect for the privacy of others. Instead, Harriet learns the importance of a lie. 

“Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

Harriet’s predilection for uncovering secrets gets her in plenty of trouble, but it’s also what makes her such an interesting and endearing character. It is, in fact,  what makes her a writer. The book doesn’t betray Harriet by seeking to rehabilitate her. Instead, she learns the power of diplomacy and the necessity of telling the occasional falsehood, to protect the feelings of others. She also, presumably, learns not to leave her notebook lying around. 

Reading your letter, I was thinking about how much Harriet the Spy would love the internet. There’s so much to be discovered! We all voluntarily surrender so much information about ourselves, both accidentally and intentionally. I often think about the future of the biography market. Sure, you can learn a lot from looking through Virginia Woolf’s personal correspondence. But that’s a radically different insight to what you might discover if you had access to her browser history. It’s basically impossible to get away with murder these days, not least because every criminal thinks googling “how to dispose of body” on Firefox incognito mode is somehow private.

There’s a wealth of good gossip out there, whether it’s a forensic investigation into whether Pete Buttigieg edits his own Wikipedia page, whether the recent Kate Middleton photos are AI-generated, or more ornery pleasures like conservative pastors accidentally tweeting “ladies and girls kissing.”

I sympathise with your letter because I’m also a profoundly nosy person. I like to know everything about everyone, whether they’re a dead king mouldering beneath a British car park, or the second wife of my sister’s postman’s chiropractor, whom I’ve never met but is, apparently, undergoing a very nasty divorce. 

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being curious. I’d argue that being a nosy person is a morally neutral trait. You can’t be an investigative journalist without a predilection to snoop. Or a private detective. Or psychotherapist. Or even an international spy. Many of the best writers, like Elizabeth Strout or Truman Capote, have a highly tuned ear for gossip. 

There’s a difference, of course,  between gossip and snooping. Gossip involves the malicious transmission of sensitive personal information. It’s also great fun, but less easy to ethically defend. We all have things in our lives we’d prefer others not to share. But people who love gossip are, at heart, people with a deep interest in the lives of others. Not just the scandalous, miserly details, but all of the good stuff too. As Ole Golly says, “There are as many ways to live in this world as there are people in this world, and each one deserves a closer look.” 

My advice to you is not to quit being nosy. My advice is to be judicious about what to be nosy about. You have to know when your curiosity is delicious and harmless, a lovely weekend activity, akin to bird spotting (which, when you get down to brass tacks, is just snooping on birds) and when that curiosity involves a breach of trust. The difference mostly has to do with emotional proximity. 

You say you can’t handle not knowing things. This is a good trait when you’re scouring the private calendar of the CEO of Exxon Mobil for a long-form article about corporate negligence. But giving people you love the Sherlock Holmes treatment is no way to build trust. If you find yourself bringing your detective skills to bear on your romantic relationships, or reading your children’s diaries, that’s not harmless. Snooping on people you love isn’t curiosity, it’s a manifestation of untreated anxiety which will slowly erode all your closest relationships and eventually leave you bereft of any true intimacy. 

There’s also information that is legally none of your business, like if you’re employed by an organisation with access to sensitive information. Obviously, you shouldn’t look up people’s medical records, unless you want to be struck off the medical register. 

But apart from a few obvious caveats, I say go ham. Cheating professors, the medicine cabinet of Airbnb owners, celebrity gossip, tragic stories about people you used to go to school with, the deleted tweets of politicians, the JFK assassination. In my view, these are all fair game. 

I’d go one step further, and suggest that your predilection to snoop might be worth channelling into a profession.  You could get work as a researcher, or try to expose the financial crimes of tobacco lobbyists. You could train to be a therapist. You could start a private detective agency. You could even turn your hand to fiction. As long as you remember, in the words of Ole Golly, “writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends.”

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