Chuggers and the power of “no”

Street fundraisers – “chuggers” – are in the news again. Why do we hate them?

Partly because they’re in our public space. If you work in town, your lunchtime shopping trip is a chance not just to eat but to get away from colleagues, to let your social face relax and daydream your way down the street, passively enticed by shiny shop windows. That’s why so many of us wear headphones; we’re really not expecting or looking for any interaction. The chugger changes that. Suddenly the street is a place where we have to dodge packs of identically tabarded people asking us awkward questions or starting fake conversations. And so we hate them because they force us to work when we are not supposed to be working.

Why else do we hate them? I think it’s also because they force us to say no. I’ve written before that a “no” is worth something, but the flipside of that is that it costs you something to say it. You have to make a decision, you have to work out how to express it, you have to actually come out and say it and you have to either justify your decision or fight the urge to justify it. No wonder we resent the people who put us in that position when we just wanted to grab a Boots Meal Deal and look in some shop windows.

With a chugger, it’s a tougher “no” than most, because your no is a refusal to give to charity. And what kind of terrible person has the nerve to actually say they don’t want to give to charity? But when you’re put on the spot like that, you have to come right out and say it. You have to be that terrible person. And we tend not to like the people who make us think less of ourselves.

The trouble is, the “no” we’re giving is not the “no” that comes out. We’re saying: “No, on this occasion I am not going to hand over my direct debit details to a complete stranger, in the street, in order to support this particular charity.” But the “no” that comes out is “I don’t care about starving children/leukaemia/the rainforest.

If saying “no” actively makes you feel bad about yourself, if your “no” is twisted into something it’s not, something is wrong with the situation. The person asking probably still deserves a no, but you have the right to look at what’s weird and upsetting, and call them out on it if you still have the emotional energy.

However, when chuggers approach me, I never try to explain why I have a problem with them, any more than I would try to explain why I’m refusing to give. Why not? Because they don’t care. The agencies who hire them have trained them to respond to every possible objection I might raise in a way that superficially addresses them, keeps me talking and keeps the hard sell going. They are not trained to listen or take my feedback; they are trained to use everything I say as a way of manipulating me into handing over my direct debit details. And boy are they trained. (I know two people who quit their chugger jobs after the first day because the round-the-clock drilling was just too much.).

So when chuggers approach me, I say: “I don’t talk to chuggers.” That very briefly explains I object to their presence, but still manages to say “no” (though not in so many words). And, most importantly, it nips the conversation in the bud.

What am I trying to say here? People who take your “no” as a sign of engagement and encouragement to keep asking are dangerous. They do not see the true value of your “no” and they do not respect your boundaries. The types of people who behave like this include stalkers, rapists and sociopaths.

The tragedy of chuggers is that they’re otherwise normal human beings who have been trained so well that during working hours they might as well not be human. I’ve heard from a few different sources that they’re trained to accept a straight “no” with good grace; but I know from my own experience that they fail to recognise other clear no-signals like “I give to charity, but there’s no way I’ll give to you.”

If you know in advance that someone is the type to ignore a “no”, the best thing is to withhold that “no” along with any kind of response or acknowledgement. That’s why victims of stalkers are always told to ignore all contact. But it’s hard to do that; sociopaths prey on our social instinct to give a response. And anyway, you often don’t know in advance. So what should you do?

I think the only way to deal with this situation is to accept and internalise the fact that you owe these people nothing, not even basic politeness. Once they’ve ignored your “no”, you don’t owe them a “sorry” or a “goodbye” or anything else that your training as a social being prompts you to give. And you don’t owe the charity anything more than you owed it before the chugger approached you. (Why is a charity that spends its money on paying people to harass you in the street more deserving than one that doesn’t?)

On the contrary, they owe you for taking your time and energy without your consent. If you want to take the encounter as a reminder to think about how much you give to charity and whether you should give more, great: that little reminder is some compensation for the chugger’s bad behaviour. So go ahead and re-evaluate your giving. It goes without saying that the charity who hired the chugger will be excluded from your benevolence.

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2 Comments on “Chuggers and the power of “no””

  1. smallbeds Says:

    One even worse thing chuggers are being taught to do these days: if you’re *too* brusque with them (or say things like “I don’t talk to chuggers [i.e. people like you],” they will sometimes say:

    “Well, that’s not very nice!”

    in a shamingly loud voice, and using a hurt and disappointed tone. Like what you’ve just done has shown you to be a plain bad person, and they want everyone to know about it.

    So not only do they not respect your “no”; if it’s too strong a “no”, they make you feel guilty for ever having said it at all.

    The best thing to do, as you say, is keep focussed on the fact that you owe these people nothing, not even courtesy. Because they will react to courtesy, to the “no”, to any conversational gambit you let them have, in ways which break the phatic contract that all normal discussions are based on. They intend to break that contract; so consider it broken from the start.


  2. […] Verbal Tea Ushering in the ymdidan reich « Chuggers and the power of “no” […]


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