What do you do when you get a text from an unknown number?

Evan Selleck
Contributing Editor from  Arizona
| July 24, 2012

Let’s set the scene. You are in your living room, there’s a TV on in the background but you’re not really paying attention to it. Instead, you’ve found yourself in your favorite chair, in the perfect spot that maximizes comfort, and you’ve got your favorite mid-size device in your hand. Maybe it’s a Nexus 7. You’re reading a book that you’ve been unable to read all day because people kept interrupting you. You’re lost in whatever it is, and then suddenly your phone makes that familiar sound that signifies you’ve received a text message.

Never mind the interruption. You’re curious to see who’s reaching out to you.

If you have an iOS-based device, then right when you look at the device you can see the number. For the other platforms, though, if you don’t catch the text as it is coming in, you’ll have to check the appropriate area to find out who it is. But no matter, you’re used to it.

You’ve put the “book” down, and now you’re looking at your phone. You’re looking at the number on the display, because that’s all it is. A number. A string of digits that your mind is fighting hard to recognize. In today’s world, adding a number into your phone is too easy. It even (usually) gets backed up to the cloud so if you get a new phone, the number gets sent right back to where it was in your address book. Contact name and image, and whatever else you have to fill out the card good to go. So when you see that string of numbers on your phone, coupled with a message that isn’t completely out of the ordinary, you immediately try to figure it out who it is.

Hey, long time no talk, the message reads.

You’re back to staring at the number. The crazy thing is, it looks familiar, doesn’t it? Like you know, you just know, you’ve seen it before. Somewhere, somehow, you’ve seen that number that’s mocking you on your phone. Because it’s familiar to you, the common assumption would be that you know the person on the other side of the conversation, even if your phone is missing a contact card.

Right here, this is the moment that defines the whole next few minutes of life for this conversation. These few moments where that message is sitting on your phone’s screen, but you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do. The simplest thing to do would be to detour the conversation a bit and ask who they are. It would be easy, just a quick, “I’m sorry, but who is this?” and then you go on with the conversation.

But what if that’s rude? What if this person on the other end of the conversation really is an old friend, someone you used to talk to on a regular basis, but for whatever reason you’ve ditched the contact card on your phone. Sure, that might suggest you weren’t all that close, but anything is possible. Maybe you got rid of the number by accident. You don’t want to be rude, right?

So you just go with it. You respond: It’s been a while! How have you been?

And just like that you’re having a conversation with a total stranger. Yes, you probably know them, and they obviously know you, but right there in that moment you’ve just begun a conversation with someone you don’t really know at all. A number without a face, or even a name. But here you are carrying on a conversation with the person.

You do it because you think you can figure out who it is based on the information you can glean from the conversation. You ask simple things like, “So where are you working now?” or “Where are you living now?” You use these clues to try and figure out who the person is, because now that you didn’t want to be rude at the start of the conversation, it’s practically impossible to interject and find out the name directly at this point.

I asked a couple of friends and acquaintances what they would do if they’ve received a text message from someone they didn’t immediately recognize. It’s happened to all of them, so I imagine it’s a pretty common thing, even if it doesn’t happen all the time. But, they had mixed reactions. The common practice seems to be just having the conversation. No harm, no foul. You either figure out who it is or you don’t. What’s the big deal?

So I’m curious where you stand, Dear Reader. How’s your text etiquette, when it comes to responding to messages that don’t have a contact card tied to it? To responding to that number that looks familiar, even if you can’t picture a face with it. Do you try to find out who it is by asking right off the bat? Or do you dig into the conversation and try to use your detective skills to figure it out? Let me know!

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