Those Annoying “Buy Your House” Texts

If you own a house–or if you formerly owned a house–you undoubtedly get them: those annoying but also unnerving texts from total strangers who address you by name and want to engage you in a conversation about selling your home. The texts are annoying because they clutter your text inbox and confirm that no form of communication is truly safe from unwanted solicitation efforts. They are unnerving because they show that, somewhere out in the internet vastness, telemarketers and potential scammers are trying to cobble together bits of information to link your name, your cell phone number, and your property holdings.

So, are these texts part of some fraudulent scheme, or are they legitimate efforts to buy a house? Apparently some house-buying texts fall into one category, and some fall into the other. The scam potential of such texts seems pretty obvious: the scammers want to knit together as much personal information about you as possible, which could be used for identity theft purposes, and hope that if they engage you in a text conversation you will divulge some personal financial information that they use to take your money. It’s hard to believe that anyone would fall for such a scam–but then who would have thought that people would fall for the Prince from Nigeria scams, either?

The article linked above, and a local report from a Columbus TV station, say that some of the texts are “legitimate” in the sense that they are from people who do in fact want to buy your house–or for that matter any house. They are flippers looking to purchase properties at bargain prices, perhaps make a few cosmetic changes, and then sell them. The texts you receive from the flippers are the modern equivalent of “cold calls,” with texts being used because no one owns land line phones any more or answers their cell phone when a strange number shows up. It’s an intrusive way to do business, which is just another reason why those texts are best ignored and immediately deleted without responding. If you want to sell your house, a local realtor who has been part of the community for years and who can give you an informed sense of fair market value is a better and safer option.

One final consideration is that, with interest rates going up and house prices going down, the “legitimate” texts about whether you are willing to sell your house are likely to stop, because no rapacious house-flipper is going to want to buy properties, spend money to fix them up, and then try to sell them at a profit in a down market. That means that, in the future, most if not all of those texts will be from fraudsters looking to cheat you in some way or another. It’s just another reason to be wary of unsolicited communications.

Communication Confusion

Last night, a group of us were at an event when the conversation turned to punctuation and communication. This isn’t unusual. My friends and I have debated a number of punctuation-related issues, such as the appropriate use of exclamation points, the correct application of “apostrophe s,” and the new emphasis on the “em dash.” Some might find it surprising–and, frankly, boring–that lawyers would discuss punctuation and communication at a social function, but they really shouldn’t: attorneys will argue about anything, and lawyers arguing about punctuation and communication tools is like most people arguing about sports.

The conversation last night, though, was a bit different because some of the firm’s younger attorneys were involved. And it quickly became clear that these earnest twenty-somethings pay extremely careful attention to the crafting of the written messages they receive and the mode of communication employed, too. When they report to another lawyer and receive a “Thanks.” response, versus the more enthusiastic “Thanks!” reply, it has an impact on them. And they explained that a terse “thx” would be viewed as exceptionally dismissive, and perhaps even veering into the “personal affront” category.

Moreover, these thoughtful folks aren’t just reacting to punctuation and abbreviations, they also have views on messages conveyed the mode of communication. Email is viewed as the appropriate channel for work communication, and texting is for personal communication, so if you get a work-related communication via text that tells you something important. The “chat” function on our firm’s “Teams” application is somewhere between those two on the spectrum of work versus personal, and the use of the messaging function during a Teams video call has an etiquette all its own. And that doesn’t even begin to capture the complexities introduced by social media or, for that matter, emoticons or memes.

This discussion caused me to mentally revisit my recent communications to consider whether I have inadvertently engaged in communications that might be perceived as rude or intrusive into personal spaces. I typically send a “Thanks!” response, so I think I am OK in avoiding that faux pas, and I don’t really text about work matters. But the ever-changing rules of the game can be a bit overwhelming for an old guy whose career began in an era before email, cellphones, and social media were invented.

One important thing to remember is that communication is a two-way street, and that implicit messages that one party might read into a communication may well not be intended by a sender who is ignorant of the latest practices and sensibilities. Training on the new rules and tools would probably be advisable for fogies like me.

Indexers And Thumbers

Have you ever noticed that people send texts in two different ways?  (And I’m not talking about overuse of emoticons, either.)  Some people use their index fingers to tap out their messages, whereas other people use their thumbs.  And people never seems to vary how they do the texting, either.  You’re either a thumber, or an indexer.

stop-texting-with-people-when-youre-not-interestedWhen you think about it, it’s a bit odd that there is no universally accepted method for efficiently and correctly performing what is now a widely used form of modern communication.  It’s like watching someone sit down at a keyboard and then use a totally unknown approach to quickly and accurately typing out a document — say, by positioning their hands at each side of the keyboard or coming in from the top, rather than the bottom.  Or handing someone a cell phone and watching them use the buttons to send a message in Morse code rather than speaking.

Both the thumb approach and the index approach seem to be equally functional — although, being a thumber myself, I firmly believe that the thumb method allows faster messaging.  I wonder if the two methods exist side-by-side because texting is still a relatively new form of communication and we’re in the VHS versus Beta phase, where standardization hasn’t set in.  The fact that there isn’t vocational training on texting — at least, to my knowledge, not yet — probably also contributes to texters having more freedom to develop their own favored method.

One thing is clear, however — thumbing versus indexing definitely has a different look.  The index approach to tapping out a message is far more genteel and elegant, with the three unused fingers of the hand dangling to the side of the phone, giving the same kind of look projected by blue-haired sophisticates who sip their tea from delicate china cups with the pinky extended.  The thumb approach, in contrast, treats the cell phone like a sturdy hand tool that you grip tightly and use to mash out a message without a second thought.

One approach is high society, the other is blue collar.  Me, I’m a blue-collar guy.

It Sort Of Serves Them Right

On the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, England, a huge, 20-foot-high modern art sculpture of two clasped hands that used to form a kind of galvanized steel wire archway over one of the walking paths had to be moved.

88342508_88342296Why?  Not because it was ill-suited to the classic and graceful lines of the church — although it definitely was.  No, it had to be moved because texting people kept walking into it and hitting their heads because they weren’t paying attention.  It’s part of a trend.  In 2014, 2,500 people went to emergency rooms for injuries they sustained because they were distracted by their cellphones while walking.  This occurs even though texting walkers tend to change their stride to protect themselves while walking, because they know they are putting themselves at risk of, say, stumbling into an open manhole.  But even baby steps can’t save you when your attention is fully occupied by your cellphone’s buzz and a friend’s emoticon and LOL that apparently demand an immediate response even as you are walking down the street.

Should the clasped hands sculpture have been moved?  Yes, of course — but because it was butt-ugly and should never have been put there in the first place, not because members of the Constantly Texting Brigade were walking into it.  In fact, you could argue that we would be doing the texting addicts a service if we installed more fire hydrants, sculptures, canopies, abutments, and crotch-height traffic bollards along our sidewalks and pathways.  After having a few painful but non-lethal encounters with objects in plain sight that attentive, non-texting pedestrians can easily detect and avoid, maybe the texters would come to realize that they should just put away their damned phones while they’re walking, interact with their surroundings, and pay attention for a change.

Thumbing It

The other day I inadvertently caught my thumb in a door I was closing.  My thumb throbbed, I cursed, and then I realized with a start that until my poor pollex was 100 percent again I was totally unable to fully participate in essential activities of modern life.

The development of an opposable thumb has long been viewed as a crucial step in the human evolutionary process.  The thumb is a simple body part, made up of bones and hinges.  Yet the fully opposable thumb is unique to humans, and its development allowed humans to become complex organisms.  The thumb permits us to grip items securely and throw them accurately.  The thumb is essential to the use of the fine motor skills that allow us to perform detail work.  It is what made humans into toolmakers and tool users.

In the modern world our thumbs are more important than ever before.  They are our principal texting digits.  Your thumb performs the swipe that unlocks your iPhone.  Your thumbs anchor your hands on a computer keyboard and pound the space bar when you type your report.  Your thumb is what empowers you to open a clutch purse, use a bottle opener, pry open a child-proof container, and take notes with a pen.  Of course, it also allows you to signal an interest in hitchhiking and indicate ready assent in a noisy place.  The list of activities that require a thumb is endless, and it will continue to grow as inventiveness moves our species toward even greater reliance upon handheld devices.

With the enormously increased use of our thumbs these days, you’d think that doctors, physical therapists, and surgeons would be besieged by people with thumb-related ailments — but that doesn’t appear to be the case.  The humble thumb abides.

Smartphone Etiquette

I’m guessing that the advent of the smartphone has created the most etiquette questions since the invention of the soup spoon and salad fork.

If you are in a social gathering, when is it appropriate to accept a call?  If you are in a multi-person business meeting, is it proper to check your email or send a quick text?  I’m not sure what the rules are anymore, and if there are rules they seem to be routinely ignored. Recently I was out at lunch and saw four women at the next table over, all silently texting to other people as they sat together over coffee.  They looked happy enough, but . . . really?

IMG_4780It’s a social issue caused by technological innovation.  During the land-line days of yore, people didn’t have to worry about a phone in their pocket ringing during lunch.  When written communications were limited to letters, you couldn’t just touch an icon on an ever-present electronic device to catch up on your friends’ latest ruminations.

Etiquette is all about establishing rules so that people are comfortable, and not offended, in everyday settings — so I think of how I feel, for example, when I am in a store waiting to check out and the clerk takes a phone call rather than completing my transaction.  I’m there, I’m ready to buy, and I get treated like second-hand news in favor of an unknown phone call?  It’s not a happy feeling that’s likely to make me want to go back to that place.  My baseline rule, therefore, is to try to give undivided attention to the people I’m with, no matter how many beeps and bloops my phone might make while we’re together.  I figure there is plenty of time to check on emails, texts, and updates when the gathering ends.  And if I’m expecting an important call that I can’t miss, I try to explain that possibility up front, so the people I’m with don’t think they are playing second fiddle to any random caller.

Cell phones are handy, but they can be a recipe for rudeness if we’re not careful.

When Can You Just Let Electronic Conversations End?

I wasn’t great with the traditional etiquette of the Emily Post and Miss Manners variety, but I’m hopelessly mystified by the challenge of the proper rules of etiquette for our digital age.

Consider electronic writing — emails and texts — for example.  In the old days, when you wrote a letter to a friend, you expected that someday you would get a letter in response.  Do the same rules apply to email and texts?  With email and texting being virtually instantaneous, is there an expected response time after which you need to apologize and offer a reason for not responding sooner?  In my view, often the speed of a response isn’t as important as getting an answer that is thoughtful — and thoughtfulness usually takes time.  But if I’m infuriating someone because I haven’t responded within two hours, I’d sure like to know that.

When can you just let an electronic conversation end, and when do you have to respond with yet another message?  If I send an email and get a response that is completely satisfactory, is it rude to not respond with a “Thanks!”?  It seems silly to constantly be sending “Thanks!” emails, but I’ll do it if that is the expected etiquette these days.  For that matter, if you go with the “Thanks!” response, must you include the exclamation point?  And is it dismissive or demeaning if you go with “thx” rather than the full, written out “Thanks!”?

I pose such questions because I really want to know if I am inadvertently being a thoughtless jerk in my handling of these nettlesome electronic conversations.  If I’m going to be a thoughtless jerk, I’d rather do so intentionally.

Should It Be Illegal To Drive And Talk (Or Text)?

Today the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a nationwide ban on the use of cell phones and texting devices while driving.  The NTSB says it is a safety issue, because drivers who are talking or texting aren’t paying attention.

The NTSB argues that distracted drivers caused more than 3,000 roadway fatalities last year.  In fact, it believes the actual number probably is higher, because distracted drivers don’t own up to the real cause of accidents.  Proponents of a ban point to evidence that a horrific chain-reaction accident in Missouri that killed two people and injured more than 30 others was caused by a texting driver and argue that making such conduct illegal might avoid such accidents in the future.  (It’s interesting that the NTSB proposal apparently would be not to ban “hands-free” devices that the manufacturer builds into the car.  What is the rationale for distinguishing between an automaker’s built-in hands-free device and one purchased separately?)

I think distracted drivers are a problem, but I’m not sure that a one-size-fits-all ban of cell phone use by drivers is a meaningful solution.  Texting and talking on a cell phone can be distracting for some drivers — but so can inserting a CD into a CD player, fumbling to light a cigarette, putting on makeup, or fishing for french fries in the bag you picked up from the McDonald’s carryout window.  Indeed, some people can be distracted without even doing anything with their hands, because they are preoccupied, or angry, or fighting drowsiness.  Are we really going to try to ban every form of activity that might make bad drivers worse?

Knowing When To Get To The (Exclamation) Point

If, like me, you were schooled in the proper use of the written word by a stern, ruler-wielding English teacher who applied her red editing pen with liberal glee, it’s been a tough few years.

The advent of email and texting and Twitter have stretched the old rules for written communications past the breaking point.  If my old teachers read some of what passes for writing on those new media, they would loosen their hair buns, put their heads down on their well-worn copies of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, and weep bitter tears.

Consider the exclamation point.  We were taught that the exclamation point was a form of punctuation to be used rarely, if at all.  It might, potentially, be useful to highlight an expression of surprise or a forceful statement, but mostly it was dismissed as a crutch for a poor writer who couldn’t drum up excitement with the story itself.  When I got to journalism school, our acerbic, chain-smoking faculty advisor instructed that exclamation points were never used in a news story.

But now, exclamation points are ridiculously common.  If you look at your recently received texts or emails, you’ll likely see dozens of exclamation points — sometimes even double or triple exclamation points (as well as emoticons, made-up-on-the-spot abbreviations, and other recent linguistic developments).  In fact, at times not using an exclamation point can be interpreted as rude or sarcastic.  You can’t just say “Thanks.”  It has to be “Thanks!” or maybe even “Thanks!!” — or you’re viewed as a surly jerk who isn’t sufficiently appreciative.

For a guy in his 50s, the trick is to avoid sounding like an over-excited teenager (“OMG!!!!”) while at the same time not inadvertently giving offense because you adhere to outdated strictures that used to govern the King’s English.  Where’s the rulebook?  For now, I’ll loosen my use of the exclamation point — but I’m drawing the line at emoticons or substituting numbers or single letters for words!

Life Lessons From The Shirtless Congressman

Heartfelt thanks to former Rep. Christopher Lee, a Republican who represented a congressional district in New York.  By his real-life example, he has helped parents across the country to explain to their kids why it is not a good idea to use the internet or texts to send incriminating photos of themselves to perfect strangers.

Parents across the country have been trying to figure out how to alert their teenage sons and daughters to the perils of “sexting” and ill-advised emails.  To the rescue comes Congressman Lee!  Apparently interested in some kind of sad, extramarital fling, he uses a Craigslist forum to make a contact, emails a woman a photo of himself in all of his shirtless, flexing glory, lies about his marital status, age, and occupation, gets caught in his fabrications, and resigns his office.  And — most importantly for parents wanting to make a point to their teenagers — the ex-Congressman becomes the pathetic punch line to countless jokes.  This latter point is crucial, because if there is one thing teenagers cannot abide, it is being viewed as a pathetic joke.

We also should thank Craiglist for acting as a kind of country-wide weeding mechanism.  Any Member of Congress who thinks it is a good idea to send an embarrassing photos and have unguarded conversations with unknown Craigslist acquaintances probably shouldn’t be handling secret information or making judgments on important national policies.

 

The Appeal Of Texting

A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project has found that texting is now a more popular form of communication for American teenagers than cell phone calls.  This comes as no surprise to anyone who has kids.  Kish and I have long recognized that texting is the most certain way of reaching Russell, who just celebrated his 22nd birthday, and I imagine texting is even more prevalent among younger people.

Why is this so?  I have a few theories.  First, I think texting is a preferred mode of communication because it is short.  You type a quick message and send it off, and that takes care of that person for a while.  No one expects an in-depth text conversation.  A few “LOLs” here, an emoticon there, and you have satisfied your communication obligations. It’s easy and quick.  Second, texting is highly controllable.  You don’t need to have a long phone conversation with someone that could degenerate into awkward silences, or God forbid a boring face-to-face discussion.  If the texting interplay becomes dullsville or uncomfortable, you just stop doing it.  Third, it plays into the general, decades-long trend of American culture that has seen us go from a highly social, interactive society filled with fraternal organizations, bowling leagues, and book clubs to one where people would rather have time to themselves and interact through technological devices or internet games.

Texting will stay popular until another quicker, more removed, more technological form of communication comes along.