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Call and Response

Being polite to telemarketers can land you in the grave

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Women working at a Bell System telephone switchboard (National Archives)

I really admire considerate telemarketers who listen and try to sense your mood without immediately forcing a dialogue on you when they call. That’s why, when Devora from YES, the satellite TV company calls and asks if it’s a good time for me to talk, the first thing I do is thank her for her consideration. Then I say politely that no, it isn’t.

“The thing is that just a minute ago I fell into a hole and injured my forehead and my foot, so this isn’t really the ideal time,” I explain.

“I understand,” Devora says. “So when do you think it’ll be a good time to talk? An hour?”

“I’m not sure,” I say. “My ankle must have broken when I fell, and the hole is pretty deep and I don’t think I’ll be able to climb out of it without help. So it pretty much depends on how quickly the rescue team gets here and whether they have to put my foot in a cast or not.”

“So maybe I should call tomorrow?” she suggests, unruffled.

“Yes,” I groan. “Tomorrow sounds great.”

“What’s all that business with the hole?” my wife, next to me in a taxi, rebukes after hearing my evasive tactics. “Why can’t you just say ‘Thanks, but I’m not interested in buying, renting, or borrowing whatever it is you’re selling, so please don’t call me again, not in this life, and if possible, not in the next one either.’ Then pause briefly and say, ‘Have a nice day.’ And hang up, like everyone else.”

I don’t think that everyone else is as firm and nasty to Devora and her ilk as my wife is, but I must admit that she has a point. In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than people in other places on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies towards strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth. And though I guard my time just as jealously, I have a real problem saying no to strangers on the phone. I have no trouble shaking off vendors in the outdoor market or saying no to someone I know who offers me something on the phone. But the unholy combination of a request plus a stranger paralyzes me, and in less than a second, I’m imagining the scarred face of the person on the other end who has led a life of suffering and humiliation. I picture him standing on the window ledge of his 114th-floor office talking to me on a cordless phone in a calm voice, but he’s already made up his mind: “One more asshole says no to me and I jump!” And when it comes down to deciding between a person’s life and getting hooked up to the “Balloon Sculpture: Endless Fun for the Whole Family” channel for only 9.99 shekels a month, I choose life, or at least I did until my wife and my financial advisor politely asked me to stop.

And that’s when I began to develop the “Grandma Strategy,” which invokes a woman, may she rest in peace, for whom I’ve arranged dozens of virtual burials in order to get out of futile conversations. But since I’d already dug myself a hole and fallen into it for Devora of the satellite TV concern, I could actually let Grandma Shoshana rest in peace this time.

“Good morning, Mr. Keret,” Devora says the next day. “I hope this is a better time for you.”

“The truth is that there were a few complications with my foot,” I mumble. “I don’t know how, but gangrene developed. And you’ve caught me right before the amputation.”

“It’ll just take a minute,” she gamely tries.

“I’m sorry,” I insist. “They already gave me a sedative and the doctor is signaling for me to close my cell phone. He says it isn’t sterilized.”

“So I’ll try tomorrow,” Devora says. “Good luck with the amputation.”

Most telemarketers give up after one call. Phone pollsters and internet-surfing-package sellers might call back for another round. But Devora from the satellite TV company is more persistent than any of them.

“Hello, Mr. Keret,” she says when I take the next call, unprepared. “How are you?” And before I can reply, she goes on. “Since your new medical condition will probably keep you at home, I thought I’d offer you our Extreme Sport package. Four channels that include all the various extreme sports in the world, from the dwarf-hurling world championship games to the Australian glass-eating matches.”

“Do you want Etgar?” I whisper.

“Yes,” Devora says.

“He died,” I say and pause before continuing to whisper. “Such a tragedy. An intern finished him off on the operating table. We’re thinking about suing.”

“So who am I talking to?” Devora asks.

“Michael, his younger brother,” I improvise. “But I can’t talk now, I’m at the funeral.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Devora says in a shaky voice. “I didn’t get to speak with him a lot, but he sounded like a lovely person.”

“Thank you,” I keep whispering. “I have to hang up. I have to say Kaddish now.”

“Of course,” Devora says, “I’ll call later. I have a consolation deal that’s just perfect for you.”

Translated by Sondra Silverston

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From what I understand, telemarketers make their money by actually selling stuff, not by how long they can keep you on the phone. If you know you aren’t going to buy their stuff, then prolonging the conversation not only wastes your time, but their time and ability to potentially make money on their next call.

How can it be considered rude to end the call as quickly as possible?

Great stuff, Etgar!

If it’s between Etgar and Shalom Auslander, I can’t choose. Loved this story.

Well, you may think it’s a coincidence, but I consider it my birthday surprise….Etgar is one of my favorite writers, so the fact that he used my name for one of his characters is such a treat!!!!

Having managed telemarketers, I agree the nicest thing you can do for them if you don’t want to buy what they’re selling is to tell them so as soon as possible, to give them a chance to use their time trying to reach someone who is interested. Believe me, if they can’t handle taking “no” for an answer, they’re in the wrong business. They hear it all the time.

Marvin Margoshes says:

My phone is on the do-not-call list, and most of these callers know that it is illegal for them to call me. I don’t owe them politeness. They are rude just by calling.

Years ago, I got a cll at dinner time that just left a call-back number. I was free after dinner and putting the kids to bed, so I called that number. I got an out-of-service message. They turned off one machine that kept bothering people, and turned off the other. Not very considerate folks.

Marvin Margoshes says:

My phone is on the do-not-call list, and most of these callers know that it is illegal for them to call me. I don’t owe them politeness. They are rude just by calling.

Years ago, I got a call at dinner time that just left a call-back number. I was free after dinner and putting the kids to bed, so I called that number. I got an out-of-service message. They turned off one machine that kept bothering people, and turned off the other. Not very considerate folks.

I’m a rare book librarian, but in my former life I was a saleman and manager in Dante’s Inferno of hell. When we were selling software to residences a common objection would be “the person who owned the computer just died” which would then elicit the callous response “so who inherited the computer?” It’s a tough business, but it’s a living for many. Although the best response is probably “please take off your list” or put me on the No Telemarkeing List” when I’m telemarketed today I choose the path of least resistance and often respond cowardly with “I’m just the baby-sitter can you call back later?

Toby Harris says:

This was hysterical! It gave me a really good laugh and I think some of you may have taken it a little too seriously! I would think it’s much more entertaining for telemarketers to hear creative stories every now and then than “no, thank you,” repeatedly.

Judy Meltzer says:

How about giving the telemarketer a forwarding number for the deceased – she could have a whole new audience.
Shalom from Baltimoore, Etgar. We still talk about your wonderful visit to Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

Stanley Gray says:

They almsot ask how are you and I answer not well. When they say “I’m sorry”, they usually try to ask what is wrong – or say something is not too serious. I answer with, “I’m having a difficult time trying to get an erection” A silence follows, and mostly thet hang up before I do.

Rachel says:

Maybe for his next book, Etgar could write about being Devorah on the other end of the phone.

Etgar, if you’re out there, I am a huge fan of your work. You drew a sheep on a skateboard in a copy of my book once and I still cherish it. I love that you write for Tablet!

Maurice Tszorf says:

Tom Mabe made a business out of his discussions with telemarketers.
Must be on YouTube, too. Hilarious.

Shirah Hecht says:

This was wonderful. Also note Jerry Seinfeld’s response, asking for the telemarketer’s home phone number so he can call back at another time.

The famous Seinfeld routine is funny, but that is make-believe. In real life I always politely say no – I have an advanced degree and a career and I figure, there but for the grace of G-d….

Cathleen Zepelin says:

I truly breaks my heart when telemarketers call and ask to speak to my deceased husband. The fourth anniversary of his yahrzeit is coming up March 4. Now I understand why they don’t believe me when I say he died; the ACLU continued calling and asking for him even after I informed them some four or five times that he was no longer available and should be removed from the calling list.

I read this half an hour ago and haven’t stopped laughing for a second. I have a close friend who owned a telemarketing company, made millions selling bogus xerox toner and then was raided by federal agents. I told him he was lucky that none of the people he badgered had come to shoot him over the years. The charity telemarketing has become more bothersome than the product telemarketing because when you say no to them, you feel guilty.

Esther Udwin says:

Fortunately I am deaf…

dylan says:

I have done this exact activity.
I also call 1 800 Time-Life CD collection infomercials and ask if the set includes “I Love You There” by the Infamous Cromags.

Kristopher Koble


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Call and Response

Being polite to telemarketers can land you in the grave

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