Beware the free steak dinner

In case no one’s noticed yet, I’m a bit of a cynic. Not as whiny as some cynics, but a bit on the ranty side. If I’m really in rant mode, I’ll probably flail my arms and swear loudly. This is why I’m so much better in print than I am in person — I have the luxury of going back and deleting the blunter passages, replacing them with something more benign. It’s not as easy to get a point accross that way, but it keeps the folks with the torches and battering rams away from my house.

There are some people, however, whom I don’t mind offending sometimes: the ones I feel are offending me. By and large, this includes sales people and politicians. After all, they’re pretty much the same thing. They memorize the manipulative lingo and spew it forth as trained. Confront them and they get condescending. If you’re not buying, they are trained to believe, you must be some sort of irresponsible, reproachful moron. It has been said — by my favorite author, Terry Pratchett, no less — that the path to hell is paved not with good intentions but with frozen solicitors.

I didn’t start out with an inborn hatred for all things sales. I was actually naive to the point of fear. People scared me. I remember being approached by a couple of petition-wielding supermarket sitters on one occasion. When I asked for more details, and a huge man, something of a cross between a gorilla and a water buffalo, stood up and hung over me in a threatening manner and started in with how ignorant I was and questioning if I was a decent citizen — well, I signed it and kicked myself later. But I’m not the person I used to be. If someone tried that with me now, he’d be trying to fish that petition out of the back of his throat with a pair of barbcue tongs. One thing I’ve never been is one to come away from a bad experience without having learned anything. I vowed never to be intimidated like that again.

More recently, my husband and I were suckered into one of those “You’ve Won a Free Dinner!” sales pitches. We were broke, so we decided a free steak is a free steak, and off we went to get one — even if it was accompanied by something called a “fire safety lecture.” They assured us no one would try to sell us anything. “Leave your checkbooks at home!” they announced cheerfully. If anything, that made me even more suspicious.

The zoobie salesman/ lecturer stood in front of a room full of suckers like us and lectured for a good hour before and probably an hour after we got our large yet mediocre steak. The content included a quiz on which rooms in your home are most likely to have fires start in them, and went on to inform us that normal smoke detectors only detect about half of all fires (I’m not 100 percent on how true that is). This was followed by heart-rending tales of people — mostly children — who had died in fires. They did give a few details of how the fires started, but much more than that, they were pulling the emotional blackmail strings for all they were worth.

As this thing dragged on, I got more and more annoyed. If it hadn’t been perfectly obvious to begin with, it was clear that they were selling something just by the way the details were recounted. For example, on the pull down screen there appeared a newspaper article with passages highlighted. But they didn’t highlight anything about fire safety or prevention: It was a quote from a little girl who had been trapped. “‘I was so scared!’ she said, tears running down her face.” That, I thought, was a low blow. But not as low as the obituary of the other little girl, the one who had died days after her parents had failed to invest in this product.

They were selling smoke detectors and alarms, and set up appointments with most of the people there to come into their homes and tell them what deathtraps they were, and of course set them up with a brand new state of the art and very expensive system. I’m pretty secure with the system I have now, with the fancy sprinklers and all, but I mainly didn’t want to buy because of their repellent sales tactics.

Salespeople, beware. I know some of you are good people who are just trying to make a living, but watch what they teach you in that orientation. If it isn’t a load of manipulative schemes, fine. But if it is, run. Run away from that cheesy group interview with the motivational speakers before you turn into a human face on a monstrous facade that I’ve learned to loathe.

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