How polite must I be to cold callers?

 

At 7pm, as you’re eating your dinner, you get a call from an unknown number. You pick it up, half out of curiosity (perhaps your numbers have finally come up on the premium bonds), half out of worry (was a family member likely to have been driving at this time?), but wholly anticipating the interaction that in fact transpires:

‘Good evening, I was wondering whether I could talk to [Your Name]?’

‘Can I ask who’s calling?’ you deflect.

Enthusiastically: ‘My name’s Charlie and I’m calling from Well Known Phone Company Ltd. I wanted to check whether you had thought about updating your tariff? You’re due an upgrade.’

You have, in fact, been wondering about updating your tariff, but you’re not in the mood to do it now and dinner is getting cold. You think about explaining this to chirpy Charlie, but even the thought of engaging in an exchange about whether and when you might be free to discuss it feels like too much effort.

‘We’d be able to save you about…’

‘Sorry’, you interject with a shade of sincerity, ‘I’m not in the mood for being polite.’

‘Ok, well, I…’

You hang up, feeling a twinge of guilt and tremendous wonderment at how Charlie of Well Known Phone Company Ltd remains so chirpy in the face of such rejection.

 

Ordinarily, we tend to think there is a presumption towards being polite to other people. By ‘being polite’ I mean acting courteously – considering and acknowledging the needs and feelings of others with whom we interact, even when those interactions are very brief. If someone follows close behind you through a door, you should pause to keep it open rather than letting it shut in their face. If someone asks you the time, you should at least acknowledge their question. If someone lets you into the traffic, you should indicate your thanks. This presumption towards minimally respectful behavior arises partly from social convention and partly from our duty to acknowledge the moral reality of other people.

Given the presumption towards politeness, how polite must you be to Charlie the Salesman? Were you justified in hanging up mid-sentence or did your twinge of guilt inform you that you had behaved unfairly? Or, given a less tolerant day, would you in fact have been justified in expressing anger and contempt to Charlie?

The presumption towards politeness can, of course, be defeated. As a rough sketch: if someone has morally wronged you then you would, depending on the seriousness of the wrong, be justified in displaying a certain level of unfriendliness and criticism towards that person. For example, if someone were to hit you, you would be justified not only in refusing to be civil but also to blame and remonstrate with that person.

The presumption towards politeness can also be defeated if the person with whom you interact has simply been impolite towards you – if they themselves fail to adhere to the particular norms governing minimally respectful behavior. To offer a very British example, if someone skips a few places in a queue, then the usual etiquette that surrounds waiting alongside other people no longer holds with respect to that person. Whilst this might not justify blame and remonstration as in the case of clear moral wrongdoing, the presumption of politeness would be defeated. You would, for example, be justified in not holding open a door or divulging the time to that person.

So, to try to get a handle on how polite you should be to Charlie, it might first be useful to consider whether Charlie has either done you a moral wrong or failed to be polite himself. Charlie’s calling you in the example I have in mind is unlikely to constitute a moral wrong. In cases of criminal scamming, there is clear malintent and culpable wrongdoing. Charlie, however, does not have such unsavory intentions – his call is just a bit annoying. The aim of the call might be to persuade you to stay with Well Known Phone Company Ltd, but it would be a stretch to say that, if you agree to update your tariff, you have been exploited. It is also not clear that there is anything particularly destructive of your privacy. You knew that your phone company had your number and you could have simply not answered the call if you feel strongly about only talking to friends and family in the evenings. I would find it a stretch to say that Charlie had morally wronged you.

Has Charlie failed to be polite to you? Certainly in the demeanor and content of his conversation with you he has been nothing but polite. Perhaps, then, there is impoliteness displayed by the mere act of calling you. The extent to which this is true will mostly be a matter of etiquette, but it is conceivable that the simple act of dialing a telephone number is not impolite.

So, if Charlie has not morally wronged you and if he is adhering to the social norms governing minimally respectful behavior, then must it be the case that you should have seen the conversation with Charlie out? I am going to suggest that the answer is no, but not because of anything to do with the morality or politeness of the act of calling itself, but instead because of the relation Charlie bears to this act.

In his work on collective and organizational speech acts, Meir Dan-Cohen (1991) employs the sociological concept of ‘role-distance’, and argues that it has normative force. He suggests that, especially in organizational contexts, we can be more or less detached from our roles. By this he means that the self can ‘locate itself’ at variable distances from the different roles that it occupies. He acknowledges that ‘identification with a role is a matter of degree, and, depending on the degree of identification, a given role may be more or less integrated with and constitutive of a particular self’. When there is role-distance, the agent is essentially playacting; he enacts his particular role by responding to its requirements and expectations.

Dan-Cohen argues that some roles call for more or less identification than others. He uses the example of a telephone exchange operator to illustrate his points, suggesting that it is a mark of the appropriateness of detachment from this role that her utterance ‘thank you for using our service’ is not sincere. Indeed, he suggests that if the operator were to add something like ‘and I really mean it’ after his expression of thanks, this would be an instance of acting in Sartrean ‘bad faith’, due to excessive identification with what is supposed to be a detached role. Sincerity, he concludes, does not belong in the organizational language game.

Focusing on this impersonal nature of the utterances performed in the context of the operator’s – and, analogously, Charlie’s – detached role helps us realize that it would be entirely permissible to hang up mid-sentence with no apology or explanation whatsoever. Since the polite and chirpy utterances are in fact impersonal, Dan-Cohen emphasizes that, as such, they are ‘externally motivated’. Being exempt from the requirement of sincerity, role-distant speech is ‘cut off from the speaker’s own identity and psychological state’. So, despite the appearance of perfect courtesy, the (entirely appropriate) insincerity of Charlie’s speech makes your refusal to respond politely entirely permissible. In fact, sincerely apologizing for not wanting to engage in conversation would actually be inappropriate. According to Dan-Cohen, attributing detached speech to its speaker ‘will result in investing that speech with values of self-expression and autonomy that it does not have’.

However, these same reasons render it particularly inappropriate to remonstrate with Charlie. Whilst you can hang up, you cannot be outright rude to Charlie nor take him to task for calling you. Again, to do so would be to attribute his speech to him and imbue it with sincerity. Charlie is not internally motivated to have the conversation with you and his words are not really his – they belong to his role. So, whilst it might be more permissible to cut off Charlie than it would if he were a person calling of his own volition, it would be less permissible to display anger or direct personal insult, given Charlie’s lack of self-expression.

This is, of course, not to say that any act performed only in one’s role is blameless or morally independent of the person performing it. There will be a (pretty low) threshold of moral wrongness above which it becomes irrelevant whether or not you identify with your role. Once this threshold has been passed, blame and censure will often be appropriate regardless of whether the agent is internally or externally motivated to perform her role. My focus here was on conversational exchanges that occur in contexts without moral wrongdoing and the way that role-distance might help us understand why it is fine to hang up on Charlie but not to take him to task.

In the example at the beginning of the post, your twinge of guilt was actually inappropriate, as was any sincerity in your apology. The implausible chirpiness of Charlie is rendered plausible when we realize that it is not in fact Charlie’s chirpiness, but that of Well Know Phone Company Ltd; Salesperson #45672.

References

Dan-Cohen, M. (1991). Freedoms of Collective Speech: A Theory of Protected Communications by Organizations, Communities, and the State. California Law Review, 1229-1267.
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2 Responses to How polite must I be to cold callers?

  • Irfan Khawaja says:

    I haven’t read the Dan-Cohen paper, so I’m going by the summary of it given here. That said, I don’t find the appeal to its argument particularly helpful or persuasive.

    The summary of the Dan-Cohen paper says this:

    In his work on collective and organizational speech acts, Meir Dan-Cohen (1991) employs the sociological concept of ‘role-distance’, and argues that it has normative force. He suggests that, especially in organizational contexts, we can be more or less detached from our roles. By this he means that the self can ‘locate itself’ at variable distances from the different roles that it occupies. He acknowledges that ‘identification with a role is a matter of degree, and, depending on the degree of identification, a given role may be more or less integrated with and constitutive of a particular self’. When there is role-distance, the agent is essentially playacting; he enacts his particular role by responding to its requirements and expectations.

    That normative force involved here is very weak. For one thing, the “cans” in the second and third sentences involve mere possibility, not necessity. We can be detached from our roles, but it doesn’t follow that anyone who cold calls you is detached. As the fourth sentence suggests, Dan-Cohen’s thesis is entirely compatible with the possibility that the person who happens to be cold-calling you right now is not detached from his or her role, but entirely identified with it.

    One can’t validly infer from chirpiness to insincerity unless there is something distinctively insincere about the chirpiness. But it’s actually a puzzle what property of chirpiness entails or even probabilizes insincerity. You might think that you can just “hear” insincerity in chirpiness, but I’m skeptical. Some people are just naturally chirpy. I doubt one can reliably “see” sincerity on a face, much less hear it in a telephonic voice. How many moral properties are easily inferred from such impoverished sensory stimuli?

    So yes, when there is role-distance, the agent is essentially play-acting. But two further questions are relevant: when is that, and how does the recipient of the call know?

    I think the real issue here is much simpler than that offered in the post, and doesn’t require any sophisticated appeal to role-distance. When a stranger calls you, prima facie, the call is an intrusion. It’s a tolerated intrusion–tolerated because sometimes what began as an intrusion ends up being a desired solicitation. Where such calls are prevalent, a convention has arisen to deal with them: The cold-caller calls. All parties realize that an intrusion has been made. You, the recipient, make clear early on in the call that you’re not interested (in a tone that is firm, rather than, say, rude or impolite). At that point, if the caller doesn’t go away, you’re entitled to regard him as an intruder. The most obvious thing to do is to hang up. I am not sure that is “impolite,” but if it is, you don’t owe him politeness, not because he is role distant, but because you don’t owe politeness to an intruder. He may be the most sincere intruder ever, but he is still intruding, and that’s the problem with him. The point is, you don’t owe him any further attention. It is silly to argue. It’s a waste of time to keep listening. It’s degrading to be overtly rude. The best option is to hang up.

    An exception: suppose the cold-caller is calling you to collect a bill? And suppose you’ve been delinquent in paying it? In that case, I’d say politeness is not only required but highly advisable–but not always forthcoming. This sort of call is not an intrusion, but a reminder of your un-met obligation. (You should be grateful!)

    A proviso: many “cold calls” are not precisely cold calls at all, but calls that the recipient has consented to without quite realizing it. In the United States, if you affiliate with a political party, you are giving your consent to getting “cold calls” from the party around election time, but that’s just part of being a member of the party. Likewise with union membership and many other things. I’m assuming throughout that a genuine “cold call” is entirely unsolicited.

  • Irfan Khawaja says:

    Apologies, I forgot to close the blockquote in the preceding post! The blockquote is the first paragraph.

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