Intrusive Sales Pitches

Q. If I pick up the phone and hear a telemarketer, do I have to listen? If I am too timid to tell her that I’m not interested, can I just hang up? And what about the salesperson herself – isn’t she guilty of invading my privacy?

A. Your question illustrates that many of our everyday dilemmas are not really questions of ethics but rather of etiquette. There are many norms of considerate behavior that are not really ethical obligations, but we should still strive to fulfill them.

A telemarketer who tries to interest me in a savings plan, or a door-to-door salesperson who wants to sell me cosmetics or cleaning products has no particular right to my attention and resources. I don’t have to stay on the phone, nor open the door.

Even so, remember that everyone has to make a living, and this includes salespeople. Ask yourself how you would want to be treated by prospects if you were in this line of work! You will probably conclude that if the salesperson and the product are not particularly offensive, the best course is to be polite, and say, “Thank you, but I’m not interested” before closing the receiver or the door. If you’re not rushed for time, you might try and listen to the pitch for at least a few seconds so as not to discourage the caller.

A telemarketer is forbidden to call back after being told not to, so don’t hesitate to hang up on someone who harasses you in this way. It goes without saying that there is nothing unmannerly about hanging up on a machine.

You should be aware that there are regulations that protect consumers against unwanted telemarketers. Many states in the US maintain lists of consumers who are not interested in telephone sales pitches, and it is forbidden for telemarketers to call them. The Federal Trade Commission has a telemarketing web page – www.ftc.gov/telemarketing – that includes a link to the FCT Telemarketing Sales Rule, giving principles which all telemarketers in the US must abide by.

Telemarketing harassment is just a new version of an age-old dilemma. The Sages of the Talmud discussed the problem of door-to-door salesmen. The Rabbis recognized that these peddlers provide a valuable service, by proffering unique goods and reaching consumers who find it hard to reach a store. On the other hand, such salesmen have an unfair advantage over local merchants, whose expenses are greater because they pay local taxes. Other passages show that the Rabbis recognized the peddler’s potential for mischief. Jewish law, millennia prior to the FTC, regulates such selling so as to balance the benefits such salespeople bring and the danger they can cause.

SOURCES: Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 156:6.