Warning: This posting may contain a smidgen of topicality.

I went wandering through the web the other day after some robot left a message on my voicemail. All I heard was, “…Yes, or 2 for no.” What the heck was that? I wondered.

My curiosity piqued, I pressed 5 for the 411. Bless you, Alexander Graham Bell, there was a phone number I could look up. And so I dove into my browser to find out who called.

My search was stopped short by the vitriol and the cult of victimization I encountered over unsolicited phone calls. Underlying this pique was a mother lode of misinformation and bad assumptions about privacy rights and American do-not-call laws. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been exposed to them.

I was working as a telephone sales representative (TSR for short) when America’s national do-not-call list came into effect. My employer was a Canadian branch plant for a U.S. firm with U.S. clients. We knew who we could call, who we couldn’t, and the ramifications of making the wrong call under the new law.

The biggest problem back then was the time it took for consumers to get on the list—up to a month, in some cases. It just wasn’t instant. Of course, even if people were on the list, we could still call because we were selling for firms they already dealt with—the existing-business-relationship exemption. It soon became apparent that the Canadian TSRs knew more than the average American about how the U.S. DNC list worked. Not that people were open to explanations. They still aren’t.

Even without that experience, as I read the various blog postings and web sites I found on the subject, I’d still have wondered what all the fuss—profanity, death threats, and exhortations to file class-action lawsuits—was about. Why were people so amped? I mean, it was just a phone call. It’s not as though someone had come to their door, getting in their face to sell something.

As a kid in the late 50s and early 60s, I looked forward to visits by door-to-door salesmen, including the much-storied Fuller Brush man, who were still about. (Truth be told, I thought this was cool, which might explain why I sent away for a Regal Greetings and Gifts catalogue while I was in high school.) Of course, this was a time that milk was delivered to the door (by competing dairies), that you knew and paid your paperboy directly, and someone in your household spoke with your postman (if you had home mail delivery) at least a few times a week. Neighbours came to your door soliciting for charities, and their kids came to sell cookies, chocolate bars, or raffle tickets to raise money for band jackets and school trips. But then, maybe, too, your back door was unlocked from the time you got up to the time you went to bed.

Today, the door-to-door salesman has become the home-party representative and the telemarketer; you pay for your newspaper automatically by credit card or bank debit—if you have one delivered—which is brought to you by an invisible adult working for a delivery company; and parents shill to co-workers to fundraise for such classroom “extras” as current text books and copy paper. The home is now a fortress that no outsider approaches—never mind breaches—without invitation. The threat of invasion is perceived as so extreme that even the ephemeral phone call is an infiltration. I blame the phone companies for this.

After exhorting us for years to reach out and touch someone, they changed tack. The telecos decided to sell safer telecommunicating. It started out with fear of the missed important call, but it quickly moved to avoiding the unimportant or inconvenient one. That morphed into fear of the unknown caller: Someone was reaching out to touch us.

The best defence was prophylactic. So we have call-screening, call-blocking, caller-ID, and visual call-waiting (which lets you know which calls to avoid while you’re on another call). Distinctive ring can tell us who’s calling as easily as it tells us who the call’s for. We never have to answer the phone again. Leave a message, and we’ll get back to you.

The problem with the telcos’ message is that it doesn’t differentiate between good touching and bad touching. All phone calls have become suspect.

That’s not to say that the call-centre industry (sales, surveys, and charitable solicitation) hasn’t been fanning the flames of suspicion and resentment. They have their way of doing things. So, yes, they do call at dinnertime. That’s when you’re home! Yes, as indicated by that list of missed calls on your caller-ID, they do keep on calling back. That is, until they speak with an adult in your household. And, yes, they’ll keep on talking if you let them.

And so many of them! Can’t deny it. There’s cost-effectiveness in phoning you from a central point instead of sending out an army to sell you insurance or credit protection; ask about your experience with breakfast cereal; or seek your contribution to fight breast cancer or childhood leukemia.

And there are the scam artists who use similar techniques for different ends. Boiler rooms trying to steal your money and identity; political operatives pushing so-called surveys that sell one candidate or deride another; contests for which the only prize is reeling you in as a sales lead. Or some combination thereof.

So, yes, I can understand some pique. But the vitriol and victimization because someone dared to phone? Back in my short time as a TSR, I had people ask me where I got their number because it’s “private.” When I could get a clarification, I found out that people think that unlisted numbers are private; that do-not-call numbers are private; that personal phone lines are private and shouldn’t be dialled unless they’ve given you their number. I guess that’s where the invasion-of-privacy thing comes from. (I’ve had someone threaten to charge me with trespassing.)

At the call centre, by law, we had to end every call with the name of the company calling and a contact phone number. This was so important, we had to finish every time, even if the other person had hung up.

Some did. Most didn’t, choosing to stay on the line, not listening to the information the government said we had to give them, but instead opting to shout, telling us to shut up, informing us it was a no-rebuttal state, demanding we hang up and get off their phone.

All they had to do was hang up their own phone. It’s not like we were blocking their closing door with our feet.

Anger is not the appropriate response. Anger results from losing control—of your feelings, certainly. It results in a loss of perspective: the perception of a threat to your privacy and security. Yet phones calls are insubstantial. They invade nothing but your time, and even then, you’re in control.

First, if you’re busy—having dinner, enjoying family night—don’t answer the phone. Can’t ignore it? On most of today’s phones, the electronic “ringer” can be turned off (you never have to hear them ring).

But call centres will call again, so go ahead, answer. Listen to the introduction.

Then say, “No,” and hang up.

You don’t have to listen further. You don’t have to shout. You don’t have to threaten. You simply have to act.

Saying no puts an end to the call. Because it’s a clear refusal, reputable call centres will stop calling for that purpose, whether it’s sales, survey, or charity solicitation, this time around. (Listen long enough to find out if they’re asking for a specific person in your household. Often you can’t so no for someone else.)

You can go a step further.

Say, “No. Put me on the Do Not Call List.” Then hang up. For telemarketers in America, that puts your number in the National Do Not Call Registry. In Canada, that’s enough to put your number on their internal do-not-call list for 3 years. Responsible survey firms and charities will put your number on internal do-not-dial lists, too, though they’re not legally required to do so.

Understanding the laws about telemarketing and how do-not-call lists work also empowers you.

In the U.S., go to www.donotcall.gov.

In Canada, go to www.lnnte-dncl.gc.ca.

While at either site, you can take the opportunity to put your number(s) on your national Do No Call List, if you haven’t already.

So, that’ll leave you with the scam artists. No easy fix. But once you’ve learned to say no, then hang up, who cares? The control is yours. It always has been.

It turned out my mystery message was left, inadvertently, by SQM, a company that does customer-satisfaction surveys. No problem there. If they still want to talk to me, they’ll call again. I’m a big boy; I get to choose if I talk with them or not. Hey, even before a real person comes on the line, their robot asks if I want to participate: Yes or no.

(Did you know that it takes automated dialling systems up to 10 seconds to hang up after you do? The human attendant can’t do a thing about that.)

I’m forever,