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Ethos, or Stay Classy

I recently sold a futon/bunk bed on Craigslist, pricing it relatively low so as to get rid of it quickly.  I had a number of nice inquiries, but I also had this one:

Date: Tue, 6 Dec 2011 14:10:45 -0600
Subject: Futon couch/bed with twin bunk above - $50 (Forest Park, IL)

** Avoid:  wiring money, cross-border deals, work-at-home
** Beware: cashier checks, money orders, escrow, shipping
** More Info:

U sell futon

This message was remailed to you via:

A bold, straightforward inquiry, to be sure.  This person may have been telling me what I’m doing, as in the imperative You sell futon!, but I suspect he was asking a question with an implied subject: Will you sell this futon to me?  So, being the polite futon salesman you’d expect, I replied as follows:

Date: Tue, 06 Dec 2011 15:09:19 -0600
From: Brendan Riley <>
To: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: Re: Futon couch/bed with twin bunk above - $50 (Forest Park, IL)


Sorry, it's spoken for.  I'll keep your email just in case the sale 
falls through, but there are several people ahead of you.


I was aiming to let him down gently, but reassure him that I would contact him if things turned around.  His reply expressed his disappointment tersely:

Date: Tue, 6 Dec 2011 15:10:48 -0600
Subject: Re: Futon couch/bed with twin bunk above - $50 (Forest Park, IL)
From: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
To: Brendan Riley <>


What interested me about this email is the personal ethos this person reveals in his correspondence.  What does it say about him, if anything, that he sends one or three word emails?  Is he emailing from a mobile device?  Does he disdain archaic niceties of asynchronous communication?  Regardless, it shows poorly on him, I think.  Or perhaps I’m being too judgmental–why should it matter whether he sends several sentences asking about the bed, when three words with no punctuation got the message across just as well?

Either way, the choice to swear in his later response was the worst of three choices, rhetorically.  Consider his options, keeping in mind that he got a fully formed email letter from me, with punctuation and a signature.

  1. No response.  None was expected from my note, I thought.  It’s safe to assume I will contact him if the bed swings to him.
  2. Polite regret, along the line of “Thanks anyhow.”  This would be my choice, and likely to be an even more positive interaction, unlikely to be a negative, likely to be a positive.
  3. Profane regret.  At best this is a neutral, as the I might be comfortable with such language.  (Not true, a peer might appreciate the profane reply, but from my response, this man could not have guessed how I feel about such language).  There’s also a significant portion of the population with whom this would be a definite turn off, something that might insure even if his turn were to come up, I would pass him over in favor of someone who stuck to email conventions.

Such is the problem with Ethos — it works on many levels that the speaker may not have considered.  Our society certainly associates articulate communication with respectability, so the correspondent who writes politely will be more likely to persuade me to do business with them.  But as Charles Ponzi and his spiritual descendants remind us time and time again, the ability to speak eloquently does not automatically correspond to ethics in business transactions.

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