Monday, August 26, 2013

Telemarketers and the Golden Rule

In the past week, I’ve had a few conversations on separate occasions where the talk turned to an annoyance we all know well: a pushy seller, which can be anyone from a telemarketer to the Mormon on your doorstep. 

In these conversations, my friends and acquaintances naturally turned to telling stories about their experiences. I have my favorite, that I pull out of mothballs whenever I can: how, after trying to be polite to a person petitioning for Green Peace, I got frustrated and just yelled, “I hate all polar bears! Kill the whales!” before storming off. I thought it was a funny story. 

Other people in the group have more impressive stories. Freaking out the Jehovah’s Witnesses by talking about Satan. Making the telemarketer think she had just caused a marital dispute. Fabricating a heartbreaking story to get the bill collectors off your back. In each of these conversations, I’ve listened with a polite desire to laugh, but end up grimacing instead. I said that, with my phone phobia, getting chewed out on the phone is one of the worst things I can imagine happening to me. I snapped at some people to be nice to Mormon missionaries, since they are sacrificing a huge amount of time and money for their conviction. 

My response kills the mood, or at least wounds it. People become defensive, making excuses. “They called me, like, six times in one day.” “They shouldn’t be harassing people in front of stores anyway.” And on they go. I always feel uncomfortable, and I’m relieved when the conversation turns to other things.

A couple days ago, I was feeling upset about the common thread in these stories: the meanness. Pushy people are human beings, trying to feed their family, or trying to speak what they believe is the truth, or doing a job that they probably hate in order to meet the bills. They are all human, created in the image of God.

Thinking about it, I realized I wasn’t exempt: although I was being completely facetious with the Green Peace people, I still reacted in a mean way. I didn’t show them the love of Christ, not by a long shot. If I could find my way back to Coronado Island and apologize to them, I would.

Every once in a while— heck, what am I saying— all the time, we should be aware that people are people. That store clerk who won’t return your item is being terse because she’s worried that her daughter is getting bullied at school. The telemarketer is working a job he hates because he just lost a well-paying job and is scrambling to make ends meet. The Mormon on your doorstep is a young person far from home, dying to get a friendly response from at least one person today. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be firm. Saying, “No, thank you, I’m not interested,” and hanging up or walking on is often kinder than dragging yourself through a long presentation and losing your patience. I’m just saying that we should remember what our reaction to our fellow human beings should be. Take a moment. See that person as a person. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.


A few months ago, Zach and I were getting calls every day, sometimes twice a day, from our Internet service provider, Charter. They called from different numbers, sometimes local numbers, occasionally Portland numbers, often undisclosed numbers. If we didn’t pick up, they’d call about eight times a day and never left a message. Usually, Zach would answer, listen for about ten seconds, and then say politely, “Thank you, we’ll let you know if we’re interested. Goodbye,” and hang up. Sometimes he listened to the whole spiel and then politely declined the special offers and said goodbye.

On one such occasion, he listened to a Charter woman’s entire speech, responding politely and appropriately while still assuring them that we have no need of cable TV.

At the end of her speech, the woman finished in her pre-programmed-sounding voice, “Thank you very much sir, it has been a pleasure talking to you.”

“You’re welcome,” Zach said. “It’s been a pleasure talking to you, too.”

There was a pause. Then the woman laughed a little and said, in a tone quite more relaxed than her telemarketing voice, “You’re so sweet.”

I guarantee you she hung up with a smile.


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