Because You Are Polite

by Ginger Philbrick

I work with a lovely younger woman who is always complimenting my wardrobe.  She asked to borrow a certain sweater about three months ago, and she hasn’t returned or even mentioned it since.

I want it back, but I am not sure how to ask for it without her being embarrassed or causing a rift between us.

Cold in the Office,


Charles Lamb, distinguished English essayist, wrote “The human species, according to the best theory I can form of it, is composed of two distinct races, the men who borrow, and men who lend.”

I am certain that if he were living in this era, he would include women in his theory. I am also pretty certain that despite W. Shakespeare’s oft repeated caution, “neither a borrower, or a lender be…”, most of us have done a little of both borrowing and lending in our lives.

You can lend many things—a book, clothing, umbrellas, rakes, hands, ears—and it follows that one can borrow them as well. The world rolls on harmoniously as long as the implied rules of the game are adhered to; we borrow, we use, and we return as soon as possible and in the condition in which it was borrowed—this is especially true of ears and hands. As in your situation, the problem arises when our borrower doesn’t respect those rules.

Although you don’t want to embarrass your friend, you don’t have to apologize for asking either. You can maintain civility and achieve success in retrieving your belonging by approaching her and in a friendly manner saying something fitting such as “I was looking for my aqua sweater last night and suddenly remembered you borrowed it. If it is convenient, could I get it back now? I hope it worked for you.”

If the borrowing and non-returning becomes habitual, you are well within the bounds of sociability to say that you are sorry, but you just cannot, or do not like to, lend your things. Although you do not have to, you may want to explain that it is because you have had some difficult experiences when doing so. Perhaps your refusal will register as a lesson in the importance of returning what is not hers.

Personally, I have enjoyed borrowing–and lending–on several occasions. There is an expression of friendship in both actions. After all, the revered English poet and cleric John Donne opined that “no man is an island.” I bet he borrowed and returned a pen or two in his day.

My thanks to all the great authors who contributed to this column today, as well as to you, Cold in Kilmarnock, for telling us of your dilemma. 

Ginger Philbrick is the owner of Because You Are Polite LLC. You are invited to email your manners questions to her and she will respond as time and space allow. You may contact her at