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Cold Calling

"Is this the woman of the house?" It's Carol from MCI, and although it's only 9 a.m., she already seems to be on telemarketer autopilot: I've been called a lot of things in my life, but a woman isn't one of them. Anybody this dumb, I figure, has nothing to offer me, so I slip the phone back into its cradle.

Then, I walk into my home office, pull out a list of names, and pick up the phone. Carol and I are doing the same thing today.

Or are we? My mission, after all, is civic rather than commercial. I'm making calls for North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, a nonpartisan coalition working on getting significant campaign finance reform passed into law. Twelve hundred school board members, county commissioners, town council members and mayors from across the state have pledged their support--and I'm following up by calling a good number of them. There's a bill coming up for consideration by the legislature in Raleigh, and we'd like the callees to put in a positive word with their local representatives.

Most of these people I'm calling don't talk politics for a living. Many of them are retired. All of them are predisposed to welcome my message, or else they wouldn't be on my list. But it's a pretty good bet they'll all think I'm a telemarketer.

The extent to which marketing has poisoned the waters of civic discourse is never more clear than when you call people on the telephone. Each call follows an identical trajectory: I ask for someone by name, and their voices instantly go cold. I then have a matter of seconds to identify myself and my intent. But my first job, always, is to convey what I'm not: I'm not a telemarketer. I'm not asking them to buy anything. My agenda is to make life better for those of us living in North Carolina.

But wouldn't a telemarketer make the same claim? Doesn't a new water filter, a new credit card, or a full range of financial services make life better on some level? And wouldn't they suggest that I'm selling a product, too--a political vision?

Still, I'm not calling party bigwigs; I'm calling citizens. And I'm not asking for money. I'm asking them to get involved, to make a connection on a political level. And I believe in my product. Getting involved politically has, for me, been the only antidote to the kind of rage and frustration I feel at the skewed priorities and political mischief committed in my name. The people who work the system build the world they want, a little bit at a time. Making these phone calls is my way of getting what I want, one person at a time. A point well made, a complaint countered, a question answered--these are not big victories; they're a lot of little ones. Mother Theresa said that individuals can't do great things; they can only do small things in a great way.

But I'm no Mother Theresa, and it's not easy. Simply getting through on the phone requires days of trial and error, like I'm working out a song-and-dance routine on a vaudeville tour. What are my first words? My tone of voice? My attitude?

Feedback, at least, is instantaneous. I know I'm sunk when a guy's wife hands him the phone while sing-songing, telemarketer. It doesn't matter what I say after he picks up. Others don't even want to know who I am. The fact that I'm a stranger, and I'm calling on the telephone, is proof enough of foul intent. They hang up as soon as I ask their name.

There's the teenager who is so used to fending off unwelcome callers that he doesn't even have to ask his mom, the mayor, if she wants to come to the phone: "She's not home," he says.

"Shall I give her a call later?" I inquire.

"Yeah ... sure," he replies, like I must be out of my mind. There's a palpable sense of exhaustion, of resignation, at the other end of the line. A sense that people--even public servants--are simply sick to death of this.

And they should be. The American Teleservices Association reports that telemarketing generates more than $500 billion in annual sales, which, given its stigma, means a lot of phone calls. And that, in turn, has generated a backlash of its own. A search on Yahoo! produces 450 "anti-telemarketing" Web sites which provide strategies for dealing with "tele-tormenting." At least one state--California--is debating a bill that would ban all commercial phone calls to people who make that demand in writing.

All of this takes place within a larger universe of corporate marketing that slaps advertising on bananas, school buses, supermarket floors, clothes, classrooms and textbooks. In the midst of this ad saturation, I suppose any opportunity to convey your exasperation to an actual human being, even on the phone, is some kind of cold comfort.

And it's one that I've tasted. I used to vent my frustration by screaming into the phone in anger, hoping that telemarketers would identify me as a madman and spread the word. I grew to make stern but reasoned demands that they never call me at home again--to zero effect. Lately, I ask, "Who's calling?" and when I determine it's a commercial interest that wasn't invited to contact me, I merely hang up. Isn't that my prerogative in the free market?

But what about civic discourse, which doesn't fall under the rubric of marketing? After all, you can decide if you want to buy something. But you don't get to decide whether you're a citizen or not. If you're here, you are part of civic life, whether you're active or apathetic. But the commercial carpet bombing we get from all quarters sends us scrambling for the bunkers. And since there are no bunkers with front porches, we pick up the phone.

When, I wonder, did civic contact become so suspect? When I was a kid, a person on the front stoop was a regular occurrence--if not the mailman on his walking route, then the boy with the daily newspaper, the lady who collected for the March of Dimes, or the League of Women Voters' volunteers with their election brochures. And there were always the durable Jehovah's Witnesses.

These people were our neighbors. We saw them at church. Even if they weren't our friends, we knew who they were and where they lived. They were participating in a civic culture that was as natural as breathing. And we didn't mind, because, chances were, we'd be knocking on their doors next week for our own pet causes. In this atmosphere, phone calls, if not social, tended to be portentous: Someone was in the hospital, or there was an important PTA meeting tomorrow--otherwise, why call? Wouldn't you be seeing each other somewhere down the line?

But the idea of a business calling you at home? Unimaginable. A tasteless intrusion lacking the appropriate significance.

Today, sales calls are so routine that significance of any kind has been erased. They've become petty annoyances, bugs to be swept out of earshot. Also swept away is our patience, our sensitivity, and our willingness to listen--not to mention our ability to divine a difference between the civic and the commercial. And gone with all of it is our ability to view the phone as a tool of social discourse rather than a wedge to make a sale.

Ubiquitous, instantaneous, egalitarian, the telephone is one of the easiest, cheapest and most effective ways to communicate, person to person. But it seems that the cross-purposes of civics and marketing will never comfortably co-exist.

My short-term adventure in phone calling should make me feel compassion for folks who do this for a living--probably for minimum wage--and undoubtedly for little, if any, personal satisfaction.

But honestly, it doesn't. I'm still angered by their robotic exchanges, their frequent cluelessness, and the inescapable element of commerce at the heart of our conversations. And I don't accept the way they've warped our personal interactions.

I'd like to think that non-market-based civic exchange can become commonplace, a way of envisioning a new world order, with a more equitable balance of power. Finding that such a vision resonates with other people is a powerful connection, and a unifying one. It's why I like to make phone calls.

But it only happens when we're willing to listen. And as long as Carol's on the line every time we pick up the phone, I don't think we'll be getting the message. EndBlock

More by David Potorti

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