How long has it been since we talked about rhetoric on this blog? Yes, I hear your chorus of cries: “Too long, blog boy!” So by popular demand, let’s look at some recent attempts at rhetorical persuasion. (“By popular demand” means I thought of doing this and no one was around to say no.)
Of course you’ll want to know where I acquired these interesting samples of rhetoric. A couple of weeks ago I decided that I should go ahead and move away from where I live, and since moving means moving to somewhere, I chose Washington, DC, as a place where I think I can find a job. So I need to find a place to live. In my naivete (i.e. dumbass ignorance), I thought there might be a few cheap places in Washington, if one could just find them.
No doubt you’re smarter than I am (though if I was you, I wouldn’t pat myself on the back for meeting such a low standard), so you probably know that in Washington, DC, even dead people can’t live cheaply. Back when I didn’t know better, two weeks ago, I found ads for cheap places on Craigslist and I emailed them. At that time I had four replies.
Since we’ve already established that you’re smarter than I am, I’m sure your antenna of suspicion would be raised at the number of people who have suddenly been transferred out of the country, to west Africa, Great Britain, the Philippines, taking the only set of keys with them. If you wish to rent out your house or apartment, wouldn’t you naturally take the only keys to the other side of the planet?
Let’s look at one such letter. The general rhetorical approach of this letter is to try to create an illusion of trust between two strangers who have never met. The letter attempts this with two overall rhetorical strategies, mixed together.
The first is to try to make the writer sound like he is open, informal, and almost intimate in revealing information that would not normally be part of such a conversation. Such openness and intimacy is to make him seem honest. If he is talking in this open way, surely he is telling the truth and we can trust him.
The second rhetorical strategy is to make the writer seem extremely trusting of the reader. We surely don’t want to be distant or cold toward this guy who is trusting us.
 The first strategy can be seen in the opening sentence [in the examples here, I’m correcting some, but not all, of the chaotic punctuation]. The letter begins: “Thanks for your email and interest in renting my house. Actually I resided in the house with my family, my wife and my only daughter before and presently we have moved out due to my transfer from my work now in West Africa.”
Notice that the very first sentence begins with an emotional appeal, that the writer lived in the house with “my family”, and in case that isn’t clear enough, he even adds “my wife and my only daughter”. Not just his daughter, but his only daughter, for a heavier emotional appeal, some of that tone of intimacy.
In a more obvious attempt to say “I’m an open, decent person” the writer even includes a philosophical statement: “all the bad people have Spoilt the good people in the world to trust each other”. There is also an appeal to the conscience of the reader with the sentence “Please i want you to note that i spent a lot on my property”, not only with the opening “please” but also with the revelation that the writer was put to expense for this (also implying it must be a nice place). At the end, the letter just comes right out and drops any pretense of subtlety on this point, telling the reader: “we are a kind and honest family”.
Since the writer’s purpose is to make us believe him, the letter is clumsy and poorly written because the rhetoric is so obvious. Rhetoric stops working almost instantly when we notice that someone is trying to use it. (For that reason, I always thought it was important to teach an awareness of rhetoric to my students.)
 The clumsiness is just as evident with the second rhetorical strategy, to make the writer sound as if he is trusting the reader. There are many phrases in support of this strategy:
- want you to treat it as your own
- i want you to keep it tidy all the time so that i will be glad to see it neat
- I also want you to let me have trust in you as i always stand on my word
- I’m looking for a quick responsible tenant
Toward the end of the letter, again the writer just drops all pretense of subtlety (as little as there is) and writes [in bad English], “Could you please let build a trust and honest together for now as one family”. Now we have become “one family” with the writer. The letter ends with “so in one accord,we are soliciting for your absolute maintenance of this house”. The key phrase there is “in one accord” implying now we all agree with each other, but there is also the implication of trust with the phrase “we are soliciting”.
In case you don’t follow the scam all the way through, the ultimate idea is to convince the apartment hunter to send a check of several hundred dollars for a deposit to the decent, honest writer, in order to receive the keys by mail. And lest you think this is a rare example of internet theft, I will quickly bullet point a few phrases from a completely unrelated second email:
- I resided in the apartment with my family for some months and we moved away due to my transfer from my working place
- I’m in West Africa for a crusade
- Please I want you to note that, i am a kind and honest man
- I spent a lot on my property
- I want you to treat it as your own
I think you get the idea. And there were still other emails using the same tactic. So while I have your attention, I am kind and honest man being transferred to Washington by my lack of work, and…