The Day I Didn't Buy Magazines On My Porch

My brother has a "No Soliciting" sticker posted by the front door of his house.  I don't, but I do have a sticker that indicates how many pets the emergency crews might try to save if there was a fire: 0 dogs, 1 cat.

A "No Soliciting" sticker would be handy if I didn't want the doorbell to ring unexpectedly.  But then I wouldn't have a story like this one to tell.

It's Friday afternoon.  I'm making lunch at home.  Grass-fed burger a la Viet.  My default way of cooking meat, which involves generous helping of fish sauce and a smidgen of vinegar, and either honey or brown-sugar.  

I was in-between helpings... microwaving my rice and long-beans: the perfect bed for my Grass-fed burger.  I see this guy walk up to my door.  Dreadlocks and khakis are a rare combination so I decided in an instant that I was going to open the door when he rang the bell.

The bell rang and I swung the door open to a wide-eyed Dudeguy who was caught off guard.  

"Oh wow!  I wasn't expecting you to answer so quickly... my that smells good!" said the Dudeguy.  

I stepped outside.  It was hot out there so I stood in the shade and leaned against a post on the porch as we talked.  I prepared myself for a sales pitch with one twist... I wanted to hear him out and to see how he does what he does.  

You don't jump out of a plane without a parachute and you don't talk to a sales Dudeguy without picking all of your plays ahead of time.  I recommend it.  You will be immune to nearly all of the curve balls that will be thrown at you.  And believe me when I tell you, they're practiced.  They have run through this script hundreds of times and seen what has worked and what hasn't.  You're never ready for *everything* they have to throw at you.  

Here were my plays: No buying or donating anything no matter what anyone says.  You're here to observe and learn.  Quit when you're bored.

Hook and Build Rapport

"Would you agree..." he started, "that you can look up and read anything on your phone these days just by talking to it."  

I paused... a bit too long.  It was a trivial question designed to have nearly 100% agreement. The first hook.  It didn't suck.  "Yes," I said.  

"Alright... knuckle-up!" said Dudeguy offering me a fist-bump.

So far, he had gotten me to answer a question in agreement and to bump his fist.  These actions are designed to establish rapport.  And it is a really good thing to do when you're a sales Dudeguy coming in cold.  Look at how much we already agree on!!!

Dudeguy now moves to describe why he's talking to me on my porch on a hot day.  

He is going door-to-door selling magazines.  An absurd concept in today's age of everything at your fingertips.  His opening question was a well-designed acknowledgment of the absurdity of this entire situation.  And yet here we are.

He changes our flow with another question.  "Where did you go to college?"  

"Just down the street form here," I answered, wishing not to give away anything identifying about myself.

"How much would you say that college help you to have discipline?"

"I suspect that for most people college isn't where you learn discipline."

"I agree.  That why I'm out here.  I came from Michigan and I am here going door-to-door to sell magazines.  It's something I do to develop discipline and it helps me to support my son back home.  It's... (blah blah blah)".  Dudeguy pulls some papers from his back pocket and hands them to me.  He continues talking but I zone out while inspecting the small bundle of papers in a folder.  The first sheet describes who this man is and includes a full physical description of the person.  The second sheet has some description of points and magazine subscription sizes.  

The third sheet is a short list of people on honey-colored cardpaper.  The list is hand-written by a few different hands.  Each line has a name and a number of points and a comment.  One comment says that the sales person was well-spoken.

"...Oh you can have a look at that!  Those are your neighbors who decided to buy."  said Dudeguy.  This gentleman is here on a disciplined act to build himself, take care of his son, and he has social proof of acceptance from my own neighbors!  Actually, I don't know most of my neighbors so they could have been anyone from any town.  But maybe they start a fresh sheet each day.  

The pitch so far involves rapport, social proof of the local sort, and your impulse to be helpful toward someone who is trying to do something right.  

The Pull of Moral Gravity

The killer-combo of the pitch is what comes next.  Dudeguy knows that the last thing anyone in my neighborhood needs at any price is a magazine.  He knows no one is likely to pay for magazines on their porch for themselves.

An indirect approach is what is called for here.  A story is called for here.  A story about my own good deed for someone else who might really appreciate a magazine.

What he offers is a chance for me, the buyer, to be magnanimous:  If I don't need magazines myself, I can donate magazine subscriptions to a local hospital for veterans or burn victims or children.  They'll take care of all of the details.  All I have to do is write a check.

This is pretty smart, actually.  A geniune, crafty, curveball.  A LOT of people feel some amount of respect for veterans.  In fact, one might even say that there is a debt that can never be repaid for veterans.  And burn victims are just helpless poor souls.  Who wouldn't want to give them a break?

We often hear the term "moral highground" used to describe when a person occupies a position and makes an argument that has advantages given the cultural and moral ideas that are in fashion.  I think that term is close to describing the situation here but usually when we speak of the moral highground it's because someone is taking a swipe at someone else.  This isn't an attack, it's just a bit of manipulation.

We need a new term.  Let's call it, Moral Gravity.  Moral gravity when a position has a favorable moral positioning (because of the ideas that are already in your head about good and evil) for something they want you to do or stop doing.  Being on one side or the other of moral gravity is the difference between rolling a large stone downhill vs. uphill.  

Donating to veterans or victims has the benefit of moral gravity on its side.  Veterans and victims are easy to imagine.  We may not all imagine the same thing but we can picture something.  And they are easily placed in the category of being worthy of generosity for most people.

Most people would rather think of themselves as generous than stingy.  They like to think of themselves as altruistic rather than selfish.  Hello, Moral Gravity, my old friend!  And if I, as a person, haven't thought too hard about this, then I will tend to compensate for my usual pattern of self-interested behavior with poorly thought-out random acts that are specifically designed not to benefit myself.  Hello, altruism!  

But the devil of altruism is always in the detail of whether the act is a clear benefit to the my designated beneficiary.  And frankly, I don't have the time to give this a lot of thought on the porch.

And this is why you don't make decisions on your porch with some sales Dudeguy chewing on your ear.  (Frankly, this is why altruism is a trump-card of sales Dudeguy manipulation)

Three Parties Are Better Than Two

The person who created Dudeguy's pitch was smart to invoke the power of veterans and victims in hospitals as an easy-to-visualize beneficiary.  **And** he/she was also smart to make this a three-party transaction and to put themselves at the apex of the three parties.

  • Uber is a three-party transaction: you, driver, uber.  
  • AirBNB is a three-party transaction: you, homeowner, airbnb.
  • Google is a three-party transaction: you, search-engine, advertiser.
  • The examples go on:  Ebay, Visa/Mastercard, Facebook

The middle-man consistently makes a lot of money in these three-party transactions.


But here's where the final bit of genius is.  The sales pitch has been refined so that we now have three parties and good will toward each.  

Toward the sales Dudeguy, for doing what he can to be "disciplined" and take care of his little boy rather than "making trouble on the streets".  Why wouldn't you want to help him?

Toward the beneficiary, because of their service or victimhood.  Why wouldn't you want to help them?

Toward myself, most of all, for being generous and unselfish.  Why wouldn't you want to be this idea of yourself.

Everyone wins!  Right?

The Dudeguy was closing on me and so it was time to end this exchange.  

I told Dudeguy that I never buy or donate anything last-minute without planning for it.  And immediately, he started to extract and move on.  As he was backing off, I noticed the beads of sweat on his forehead.  I praised him for being out there in the heat trying to do what he was trying to do and offered to "knuckle-up" again for how awesome it was that he gets out there to do his thing.  But he wasn't interested anymore.  

I guess we had moved beyond the need for any rapport.

He moved quickly to chat up my neighbor, who had just arrived home.

Who Did You Say You Work For?

I didn't really get to ask the Dudeguy about his employer.  But I did remember a "D" and a "T" from the badge around his neck.  So when I went inside to eat the second helping of lunch, I punched in a search for "d t door to door".  What I found isn't very flattering.  

Yelp has review after review of confused and angry wondering aloud if they were suckered by "high-pressure" sales tactics.  Many of them report issuing stop-payment orders on their checks after doing the research.

The Atlantic has a troubling story entitled, "Trapped Into Selling Magazines Door-to-Door". It doesn't mention D&T by name but it describes a scenario which could easily be what this young man faces:

...Young was hundreds of miles from home, and she worried that if she failed to deliver, she wouldn’t earn enough to make it back to her kids. “If you sell too low or you’re a troublemaker, they’ll leave you,” she said. “And I ain’t got nothing.”

Young is one of tens of thousands of people working for door-to-door magazine crews, and the fear of being left behind is nearly universal. “I’ve been working on crews for three years, and I’ve been abandoned 11 times,” said Stephanie Dobbs, a mother of three who worked with another company, Young People Working, LLC, until being stranded in Cloverdale, Indiana, last month. “But I keep going back. I’ve got to do something to support my kids, and this is fast, easy cash if you’re a good seller.”

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw about this except to say that trying to provide direct help to people that you don't know can be complicated by exploitation and unintended consequences.  You just can't suspend your judgment and you have to have your own reasons for doing things.

As someone who has read Ayn Rand and did not find the ideas repellant, I can say that a person who represents their long-term self-interest will always have a clear story for why they are doing something.  And blind acts of hit-and-run helping of others don't pass muster.  

This doesn't mean that you have to forever swear off random acts of kindness.  

Even with my cold, calculating reason making all of the calls, there was one night on the way home that I encountered a person and his car pulled over just outside my neighborhood.  This person had a flat and no clear idea of how to deal with it.  

There was no risk of exploitation or unintended consequence this scenario.  The biggest risk was that I'd get hit by a car.  So I pulled over and gave up some sleep to lend a hand.  I walked him through each step of how to change his tire but I made him do all of the work so that next time he has a flat, he will have been through the steps at least once.

The thing about random acts of kindness is that helpful action may not be benign.  It's not always easy to get a clear idea of whether any action you can take will be help or harm.  Help your daughter to tie her shoes every time and you deny her the opportunity to practice her motor control.  

I think a good rule of thumb is to take no action to help unless you're clear about the help/harm balance.  Act responsibly, and always with with kindness.  Sometimes even act on impulse, but never at random.