Farhad Manjoo: Oh, I got a new text! “Click to view picture message.” Okay. Now what in the world is that?!
Emily Yoffee: I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist.
Farhad: I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.
This week’s question comes from a gentleman who inherited an old telephone number, along with too much information. He writes, “Dear Emily and Farhad, I’m a 54-year-old man who purchased his first cellphone last October. Apparently, the phone number I received has been in use previously because I occasionally receive texts clearly intended for another person. Sometimes I ignore the texts, and sometimes I respond to let the sender know the intended recipient no longer has my number.
“This morning, though, I received my first sext – a close-up photograph of a woman’s crotch. I suspect this photograph is intended for the person who used to have my cellphone number, because it comes from a number I don’t recognize and doesn’t look anything like the woman in my life. What is the proper response? Do I ignore the sext? Do I let the sender know it didn’t reach the intended recipient? Or do I send a photograph of my crotch in response? (I’m joking).” Signed, Sext-o-Genarian.
OK, Emily, what should this guy do about this awkward situation?
Emily: Let’s hope this isn’t one of those stings, and that later you hear “A previously upstanding middle-aged man has been hauled off to jail for distributing pornography.”
On the previous text, it was nice of him to say, “Hey, look, this is no longer the number of your friend.” But you certainly have no obligation and you can delete them. In this case, you’ve got to get this off your phone. If he was going to reply, what do you say? “I can’t say your face looks familiar or any other part of you. I think you meant this for some other lucky man.” It’s not a good idea to continue this communication.
Farhad: Why doesn’t he think this could be from a secret admirer – that it could actually be meant for him? Maybe someone was waiting for him to get a cellphone, and now is sending him a message.
I agree with you, though. I don’ t think he should respond – especially on the first instance. If it gets to be a repeated annoying thing, maybe he can point out that it’s not his number.
Emily: I’m wondering if he should call the cellphone provider. Not to be paranoid, but we live in bizarre times. If, by some strange chance, the previous owner was involved in some unpleasant stuff or there are more photographs, you don’t know how old the owner of the crotch is. People have gotten in bad situations – not that he’s forwarding it – but you just don’t want that on your phone and I’m wondering if he should talk to the cellphone provider and say, “Look, this phone number wasn’t defunct long enough. Is there something you guys can do?”
Farhad: I don’t think he’s going to get in trouble for this. He didn’t do anything; he just received it. He hasn’t had the number long and doesn’t seem very attached to it. If he’s constantly getting messages that are not for him, it wouldn’t be that much of a change I guess to get a new number.
Emily: That might be the answer – to just go back and say, “Whoever had this phone before, I do not want to be associated it.”
Farhad: Who led a very interesting life. Do you think he’s doing the right thing by alerting these people that they’re sending him the wrong message? It seems like a kind thing to do, but on the other hand, is it okay for him to just ignore them?
Emily: Sure. It’s nice to do. I don’t think you have obligation. I should tell a terrible story about myself years ago when I first moved to Washington. My phone number was one digit off from the Austrian Embassy. I used to get calls all the time for the Austrian Embassy, and would almost always say, “No, you want to call _____,” and give the right number.
I had gotten several in one day and I was really getting annoyed, so the phone rings and I answer and this voice says, “Hello, Austrian Embassy?”
And I said, “Seig Heil!” That ended that phone call. It was nicer to give the number, but I don’t think you have any obligation.
Farhad: Emily, he mentions that he has a woman in his life.
Emily: Who doesn’t look anything like the woman in the sext.
Farhad: Right. Sometimes couples who want to go rifling through your phone – maybe not even to look for something; just to use your phone – what if she notices this picture? What should he say?
Emily: First of all, he’s got to get rid of it. Take out the batteries, stomp it, whatever you do. But I actually do think you’re right. I think that’s a good point. I think he should say to the woman, “I’m thinking of getting my phone number changed because I am getting a lot of annoying calls, and today I got a pornographic image sent to me. This phone number is not working for me. I just wanted to let you know, honey, in case you borrowed my phone one day.”
Farhad: Right. He should declare it as soon as possible, because it would be very bad if she found it first and the excuse “it was a wrong number” – no one is going to believe that.
Emily: That actually is a good one to keep in mind for all the guys who do get caught. “Yes, the 4000 texts were to a wrong number.”
Farhad: I think that’s what happened to Tiger Woods.
Emily: Maybe he has Tiger’s old phone – the one that the wife ran over!
Farhad: Maybe he’s going to get some endorsement deals out of this, too.
Emily: Our bottom line is you have no obligation to do anything except get the sext off your phone, tell your wife, and maybe get a new phone number.
Farhad: Yeah. I say get a new phone number.
Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Farhad: You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to www.facebook.com/digitalmanners.
Emily: And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.