Category Archives: Ethics

A Piano Deal Gone Bad

An unscrupluous seller exhibits narcissist-like behavior on a free piano deal.

So, a dear friend sends me a link to a pretty good piano being given away for free on Facebook Marketplace. So I decided to get involved for her to see if I could help make it happen. (I’m a music teacher, and a former piano salesman.) But along the way, the seller’s behavior became noteworthy. So I decided to make a post of it, as it involves so many of the things I frequently write about.

Our dialog is below, and I’ve included my notes about it in fields with a yellow background.

First, the ad:

FREE—Kohler & Campbell Piano
I recently moved into my home. The piano was left behind. It is in great shape. Original price was just shy of $4000. I just need it gone to make room for other items. Hoping someone here would like to have it. Moving it is the challenge, very heavy. You will need an extra one to two people to help.

Last Night

Jack: These are good pianos. Still available?

Seller: Yeah, it’s available. it’s really nice. Would love to keep it.

Jack: And it’s free like the ad says? If so, I can get it tomorrow.

Note that I go out of my way here to confirm that it is indeed FREE.

Seller: It is. Will you have help? Available after 5:30

Jack: I’ll get help, and an enclosed Uhaul. But I’ll be in a choir rehearsal from 5:30pm until 9:00. Would Tuesday morning work for you?

Seller: I work 8-5 mon-fri. Any other night work?

Jack: Sure. Let me work on that. Can you tell me the physical situation? Stairs? Sidewalks? Snow? Obstacles? If it’s flat, we can do it with 2 people and furniture dollies. If there are obstacles, we’ll bring 4. So, is 5:30 on Tuesday a good target?

Seller: Tuesday evening will work. Couple stairs, no bends maneuvering will be easy, just the sheer weight of it is the challenge

Jack: How many steps in each set of stairs?

Seller: Oh, literally just a couple stairs. Not even a full set. Couple steps more accurately

Note the trouble I’m going to here to try to find out the specific situation I’ll be walking into. And note the imprecision of his approach to communicating. This is not the main point of writing this post, but this may be significant if it turns out that I’m write later on in thinking he’s a narcissist.

Jack: So, then, 2 steps, twice?

Seller: (Sends this photo, and the comment following):

Seller: Just down that

Jack: Nice and wide. That helps! OK, then. I can bring help for Tuesday at 5:30pm. May I have an address?

Seller: Sounds good. (Gives his address here.)

Jack: OK, then. Let’s do it. See you at 5:30 Tuesday.

This Morning

Seller: Hey! Sorry to be this way. I woke up to a couple offers. Best is $200. Would you be willing to match?

Note the assertion, “Sorry to be this way.” The level of this sorrow will be tested in the discussion that ensues. I note for the record that this statement makes it obvious that he is in fact aware that he is “being this way”. He is not, therefore, clueless about this bad behavior, but is being pinged about it in his conscience. And even so, he decides to let it rip, hoping to get something more out of me than he had agreed to last night.

So I thought for a couple of minutes about how to reply, and decided on a very direct response. Note that I use the terms “agreement” and “backing out” to help frame the moral nature of this human interaction, hoping to prod him to think it through as it deserves, and not to be a cognitive/moral miser:

Jack: No, I can’t match that. Are you backing out of our agreement?

Seller: I’m considering the offer. I’d be foolish not to take money on the table.

The negotiation tactic here is subtle, but not uncommon. He’s fishing for a better offer from me, while also (probably, I think) trying to signal that he doesn’t have to have an answer right away. And I’m guessing that he’s wanting his $200, and hoping to get it without destroying our deal. In other words, he might as well be saying to me, “I’m destroying our deal by fishing for money where it was free at first, and I’m hoping you’ll be OK with this, so that I don’t have to be the bad guy I know I’m being.” This is reminiscent of narcissistic behavior—where he really does not want to be at fault in the final analysis of the thing. So keep watching to see how he tries to solve his bad-guy problem (that he already has signaled he knows he has.)

At this point, I talk it over with my wife, Kay. We see where this is going. And the piano is indeed worth the $200, plus the $100-or-so in moving truck expenses. And even though I know that my friend won’t want it for $200, Kay and I have a good use for a piano like that. But we recognize that he has now poisoned the well, and trusting him with anything from here forward is risky. So I decided to hit him hard with how I see his bad dealing, and what it has cost other people. I avoid calling him names, or using vitriolic language, but I don’t pull any fair punches. And again, I’m appealing to his conscience, on the outside chance that he repents and does us right at the end of the story. (And if he does, the piano’s going to my friend if it’s still free. And if he makes any meaningful concession at all, but still wants money, then we’re still willing to buy it for up to $200. So at this point, I’m thinking the lyrics from the 90s song from Poison, “Give Me Somethin’ to Believe In!”

So I answer as follows, prompting him in what I think he should think about, and reminding him of the Golden Rule, a moral authority bigger than us both. Note that I do not end it with curses, but with a sincere, though cutting, wish:

Jack: So you’re weighing out your honor against $200. Meanwhile, you’ve poisoned the well with me, because even if I bend to the sleezy strongarming tactic, I have no guarantee you won’t do it again tomorrow, claiming that you have got an even-higher offer. And look what I’ve already lost in trusting you so far. The effort involved in organizing the pick-up crew on my end—and a Uhaul truck to transport it safely in winter weather—has not been a trivial use of my time. And what of the disappointment of the mom and the four kids that it was going to? I doubt that you thought through any of this. Nor do you seem to have consider what it costs you in the long run when I report you to Marketplace for bad dealing. May no one ever do to you as you have done to us. May you be treated instead according to the Golden Rule.

Seller: I’m surprised you have such strong feelings about this. All I said was I was considering it. Your response has made it much easier to take the other offer. I have kids of my own, they want to keep it. So the money is going to my kids. I have thought about it more than you can imagine. There are loads of free pianos on the marketplace. I do apologize for any inconvenience.

I’m going to break all this down line by line:

“I’m surprised you have such strong feelings about this.”
This is common “gaslighting“. He’s changing the subject from his bad behavior to what he wants to paint as my emotional response to it. He’s implying (subtly) that I should not have strong feelings about this. (After all, he doesn’t!) He’s likely hoping (not knowing much about whether this will work on a person like me or not) that I will change my attitude from being adamant about his bad behavior to being sorry for my “strong feelings” about it. Again, this is a very common ploy, even though it is morally irrelevant to the situation at hand.

“All I said was I was considering it.”
No, he also said he would be “foolish” not to take it. In other words, he would be “foolish” not to ditch me and deal with the new guy—unless I’m willing to renegotiate, which (he thinks) gets him off the hook for bad dealing, and gets him $200.

“Your response has made it much easier to take the other offer.”
My response had been designed to reveal what kind of heart the man has, and to prod him toward the better choice if he had been on the fence about it–like he pretended he was in “considering” the other offer. Had he not been this hardened, it would have made it harder to take the other offer! So ironically, he has used my morals-reminding words as an excuse to do the wrong thing. And just like that, he’s off the hook in his mind. He has “justified” himself, he thinks. But he’s not going to stop there. He goes on:

“I have kids of my own, they want to keep it.”
Interesting tactic. Does this mean that you’re going to turn down the $200, and keep the piano for your kids? In the ad, we see what was initially more important than keeping it for his kids: “I just need it gone to make room for other items,” he had written. So really, this is quite a feckless stab at bolstering his case. It appears to be nothing more than to say something like, “Oh, so you mention that a mom and four kids will be disappointed by my reneging—–well, I can mention kids, too—and while I’m mentioning my kids, let me accidentally let the cat out of the bag that I’m disappointing them, too, by giving away selling a piano they want to keep, so that I can have $200 and space to put other stuff instead—but wait, I’m realizing as I write this that that doesn’t sound good, so listen now as I declare…..”

“So the money is going to my kids.”
Let me note right off the bat that I would love to know if this actually happens, or if it’s just a magnanimous gesture, made purely for show, him knowing it is unfalsifiable for me.
Anyway, this line rings a bell for me as it is a classic ploy in false “justification” of bad behavior.

In his most excellent and useful book [The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How we lie to everyone—especially ourselves], author Dan Ariely details how people self-regulate their own lying, cheating, and stealing when the levels get so high that it’s hard for them to keep feeling good about themselves as people. So anything that helps them feel better about an instance of dishonesty (in this case, cheating Jack by reneging on the free piano deal), is likely to be employed when it’s practicable. And what does Ariely say seems to be the world’s favorite excuse? It’s this: “It was for a good cause”. And what better example of that is there than what the seller employs here? (“It’s for the kids” is the idea he presents.) So, screwing me and my family and our friends is all “for a good cause”—because the seller’s kids get the surprise $200 that he did not promise them upon initially informing them he was getting rid of the piano they wanted to keep.

Make sense?

No, but from what I’ve been learning lately, to a narcissist, this kind of mindplay makes perfect sense!

“I have thought about it more than you can imagine.”
It’s fascinating how this guy suggests that he knows the limits of my imagination! This seems to be just more self-talk aimed at soothing his own conscience. And while he’s at it, why not throw the lie at me, too, to see if it might just happen to convince me?

“There are loads of free pianos on the marketplace.”
I note that he makes no direct point to me here. Rather, he seems to be implying something or other, but doesn’t have the courage (or the clarity of thought) to come out and say it. So, how shall I fill in the blank? What shall I assume he might have wanted to imply? How about this? “….so quit your whining and go get one of those, and hope that they don’t try to screw you over like I did”? No, that doesn’t quite work, does it? I guess I should have stopped at the comma!

I do observe that some people use these sorts of implicit arguments, because it saves them the trouble of having to think things through. Plus, if you “bite”, they have several directions they can go in denying you. (Remember how earlier when I asked he if was backing out on our deal, he said he was only thinking about it? This is an example of him trying to shame me—as if I were completely off base to be worried that he would renege, even though the whole thing has played out to prove that my suspicions were in fact accurate.

“I do apologize for any inconvenience.”
And there we have it. This is the full extent to which he is willing to accept responsibility for his actions. He does not apologize for cheating, for going back on his word, or for defending himself through these dishonest, irrational, and irresponsible manipulations. All he’s willing to do is to toss out this tiniest of tokens. And if pressed about it, cannot he claim, “I did apologize to the guy!”—implying once again that the guy is over-sensitive, under-forgiving, and unreasonable?

And that’s the way the game is played!

What should this man have done? What was the right thing to do?

He should have kept his word, just as he would have expected anybody else to do had the roles been reversed. I pointed out his sins, and how they had been costly to us. And a good-hearted person would have realized that he had sinned (though this man had already demonstrated that he was aware he was in the wrong), and would have relented. And hopefully, this man will reach that point sometime—although it doesn’t seem that he’s close enough at present to reach that point of realization today.

But along the way in all this, a proverb came to mind, and I wanted to share it:

Fools mock at making amends for sin, but goodwill is found among the upright.

Proverbs 14:9. new International Version

That’s what this man did. I pointed out the sin and the harm it caused, and rather than to address that forthrightly and fairly, he chose to turn the tables on me. He didn’t attempt to make amends for it, but mocked me by insinuating that my emotional response to his cheating was inordinate, that the existence of free pianos left me without a leg to stand on, and that my over-the-top response to him practically justifies his cheating!

How richly ironic, therefore, that a man like this would have ventured to summon the word foolish in his initial defense. And when he did, he got it exactly backwards! He said it would be foolish not to screw me and take the money. Oops! Wrong answer.

He sold out his honor for $200 (if it’s even true that he got such an offer???). And I wonder what his financial threshold would have been. Would he have cheated me for an offer of $1? $20? $50?

Well, I could go on and on with this, because there’s still more to be learned and shared from it. But as it regards this man’s honor and his trustworthiness, I am reminded of these words of Jesus:

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.

Luke 6:10. English Standard Version

Had the man been the faithful sort, it wouldn’t have mattered if the second offer was for $2 or $20,000; he would have honored his agreement with me.

Plenty and Need

We have plenty of:

  1. Land to grow enough crops and animals to feed everybody on earth.
  2. Sunshine to make it grow.
  3. Water to make it grow.
  4. Air to make it grow.
  5. People to do the work that’s required to make it grow.
  6. Natural resources from which to make clothing and housing for everybody.

Yet, not everybody has adequate food or shelter or clothing.

So, then, what do we need that we don’t have?