Real Estate

The Line Between Funny And Unprofessional Isn’t So Fine

Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent over six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.

When Bill and Melinda Gates, two of the richest people on the planet, announced they were divorcing, the internet lost its collective mind. Included in that collection were many real estate agents. 

Here is a screenshot, apparently of an Instagram direct message to Melinda Gates, that was widely shared across real estate social networks, as well as various social profiles and pages.

I have no idea if this message was actually sent, and whether it was or was not doesn’t really matter. Comments on this screenshot ranged from, “OMG, that’s hilarious!” to “Wish I’d thought to do that,” to “Good luck!” to “Wow, how utterly tasteless.”

I’m in the utterly tasteless camp.

Divorce isn’t funny. It’s a painful, emotional, expensive and difficult process. Yes, I’ve poked fun at my own divorce. It was a cathartic release and part of my healing process. The key here is it was my divorce, and my healing — not someone else’s. To make fun of another person’s pain, a complete stranger no less, smacks of immaturity and is unprofessional

Right now, I have zero doubt someone is thinking, “Oh for Pete’s sake, lighten up Jay. It was a joke, and it is funny. Get off your high horse.” They probably clicked off this column before getting this far.

That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. 

I simply see sharing this, and similar images and memes, as tacky, tasteless, and pointless. This industry struggles with consumer perception. For years, Gallup polls showed real estate agents were among the least trusted and respected professions, often ranking us right down there with car salespeople and Congress. Other polls and surveys have shown the same historical trend.

Invariably, these polls and surveys are met with denial, questioning their methodology, or a simple, “Well, they didn’t survey my clients!” Yeah, because Gallup doesn’t understand how to survey a sample population.

Deny it all you like. Bury your head in the sand. That won’t make the perception go away. Sure, you may be incredibly well-trusted by your clients. You (and most agents and brokers I know) work your tail off with nothing but their best interests in mind.

However, the industry as a whole isn’t seen that way by the people that matter — consumers. Those potential homebuyers and sellers, those potential clients tend to have a poor opinion of our industry, whether we like and accept that or not.

And we’re feeding that negative perception by creating memes making fun of a bitterly painful, personal process. Stop it.

What does sharing something about the Gates’ divorce do for you? Does anyone really think Melinda Gates is going to read a direct message from a complete stranger and think, “Oh they are so caring and thoughtful. I’m going to contact them to sell our house!” Of course she won’t.

On the remote chance she even sees the message, I suspect her actual thought would be more along the lines of, “Wow, how incredibly rude,” as she clicks the delete button.

So you get a handful of “likes” and “hearts” on your meme. Big freaking deal. Those are almost all coming from your peers. You know, the people in the industry that won’t ever be using your services to help them buy and sell. What, you’re going to get a referral from someone because you post a “funny” meme? Really? Is that how you select someone to refer to?

While there are indeed some out there thinking I should lighten up, rest assured I am not alone in feeling this “marketing” is rude and senseless. There’s this list on my laptop and phone that’s titled, “People to never send a referral.”

I’m not the only one keeping such a list. As this and similar memes got posted over the last week, my list grew in length. That list is almost entirely populated from actions taken on social media.

Rude comments. Senseless memes. Poking fun at other people’s pain. Making personal attacks. That’s all unprofessional behavior, and gets you enshrined in the never-refer list.

I suspect some will think, “big deal, I don’t want your referrals anyway.” Maybe you’ll even add me to your own list. Thanks, please do. One thing you might want to ponder is the fact that consumers will see your comments, attacks and insensitivity.

It doesn’t matter if you only post in “real estate groups.” Nothing is private on the internet. The internet never forgets. Eyeballs, including consumer eyeballs, are everywhere.

Look, I get it. The real estate business is insane right now. You’ve got frustrated buyers. You’re (rightfully) frustrated. This is a tough job. Humor is a great escape. It’s also rife with danger. The internet is littered with examples of brands imploding due to misplaced humor.

The Bill and Melinda Gates divorce is just one example; there are countless others. Think before you post. Consider the feelings of others. Even if those others are complete strangers they’re still human beings going through a rough time. Making fun of their plight does nothing for your brand or business. It may in fact, damage both.

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree living in the Texas Coastal Bend, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.

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