The other night at dinner, and for the umpteenth time this year, the phone rang, and it was some telemarketer trying to push a credit card on me. I told her that I hoped she'd find some decent work instead of spending her time disrupting people's dinners. For good measure, I asked her for her home phone number so I could return her call later, like at 2 in the morning.
When I hung up, my wife told me I sounded deranged and was setting a bad example for the children. But I've had it up to here with these annoying calls. Tell me I'm right.
Had I received your letter just one week ago, I probably would have answered, "Right on," and then shared some other snappy retorts that I'd like to unleash on telemarketers.
But just a few days ago, I was speaking to a friend of mine, Charles Mizrahi, and he told me that after years after reacting with great annoyance to such callers, he'd had a change of heart. He said that one day he asked himself, Who are these people who are making these calls? He concluded that most of them are probably either single mothers in need of money or people who hold down regular jobs and then take on this second job to bring in urgently needed additional cash.
Visualizing financially strapped people making such calls made him feel more compassionate toward them. So, the next time one came, inevitably during dinnertime, he told the woman on the other end: "I don't think I'm interested in what you're selling, but I wish you success. Now I hope you'll excuse me, but I'm eating my dinner."
The woman on the other end was taken aback and confided that in the week she'd been doing this work he was the first person who had responded courteously. For this she expressed much gratitude, even though she hadn't made a sale.
I was moved but not fully convinced by Charles's story. After all, I reasoned, if we all start acting courteously to annoying callers, maybe it will spur a further growth in what I definitely hope is not a growth industry.
Nonetheless, about an hour after having this conversation, my phone rang. When I picked it up, I heard the inevitable question, "Is this Joseph Telushkin?" Only, of course, my name was drawn out and mispronounced, the immediate giveaway as to who was on the other end.
This time, I decided to use Charles's strategy. I listened for a few seconds and then broke in. "You really don't have to give me your whole presentation," I said. "I'm not interested in buying your product. But I do hope you have greater success with others."
The woman thanked me, and I hung up.
And you know what I noticed? Not only had I acted courteously, which was obviously more pleasant for the person making the call. But I myself felt better. Almost invariably, when I'd received such calls in the past, I would announce pretty angrily, "I'm not interested," and more or less slam down the phone.
But instead of feeling satisfied with myself, I would then be irritated, going on to whomever was present in the room about how obnoxious these calls were. This time, after I hung up the phone, I felt no annoyance. Rather, I felt good about myself because I'd been polite, and I felt a measure of compassion for the person who has to inflict herself on others by making these calls. Thank you, Charles Mizrahi.
Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.