Telemarketing: Making it Zen

We’ve all been there. We’re tired, busy, or eating dinner and the phone rings and we rush to get it. Only about half of the time is the person on the other end someone we want to talk to. We know this before we get the phone, but rarely does this stop us. We might have family in frail health, and fear missing a call alerting us that they have taken a turn for the worse. Or maybe we’re waiting for a call-back from that great person we had lunch with last week. Sometimes, we’re just curious to know if someone from our past has looked us up out of the blue and many calls from businesses are important. We all have to keep in touch with banks, credit companies, doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. If we have children, it is vital that we be reachable at all times.

Our inevitable response to the ringing phone is what telemarketers count on. They design their pitches to catch our attention quickly. Companies like the Calgary Herald never begin with a sales pitch. Instead, they ask if you received your morning paper. Our need to answer makes us a part of the pitch, rather than a passive listener. I assume this tactic works, but it makes me angry and determined to not subscribe. I’m like that. If a carpet cleaner calls and offers me a good deal, and my rugs could use a shampoo, I hang up and contact another company that has never called me. If I reward those who harass me at home, I’m encouraging them to continue.

Maybe harass is too strong a word, but it does feel like harassment. Telemarketers claim that their job is a form of advertising similar to television and radio ads, but I disagree. I choose whether I listen to radio ads. I can do other things while television commercials are on. The telephone demands a response – we must stop what we are doing and go to the phone or look at the caller ID. Telemarketers come into our homes and affect what we are doing. If the phone wakes us up it can rob us of hours of sleep afterward. The response of telemarketing companies has been to suggest we take our phones off the hook while we are sleeping or eating dinner. I am offended by this suggestion on a number of levels. First, if I take my phone off the hook, I am forfeiting my ability to communicate with those I want to hear from. I pay for that privilege, even when my phone is off the hook. To suggest that we must shut off our phones when we do not want to be disturbed is to suggest that anyone who has a phone has no right to say who can or cannot contact them. Telus offers a call screen package that allows you to block 12 numbers, but it costs $3.95 a month and I have to anticipate who will call. They have another system that blocks calls from numbers that block caller ID, but the system is faulty. I had it for 3 months and it blocked a call from my father the day my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was not worth the few calls that it blocked.

I am also offended by the suggestions of telemarketers because they presume that the only important things we do in our homes are eating or sleeping. I would argue that most of what I’m doing when I’m home is too important to be interrupted by someone I don’t want to talk to. People can be busy with all kinds of things: homework, movies, changing diapers, cooking, laundry, sex, showering, painting their nails, getting dressed, home repair, painting, playing with the children, meditating, exercising, or even just reading a good book. These may not all be vital functions, but it is important to have time to do as we wish without unnecessary interruption. Should we have to interrupt these things to be asked if we need furnace cleaning? Most people have too little time for these things already.

It’s not that telemarketers simply ask us to interrupt things, but that they demand it. Email is looked at when it is convenient for us. TV shows can be taped and watched later. But the telephone must be answered now. Even if we don’t answer it, it is sure to break our concentration. Fortunately, there are things we can do to minimize this interruption.

Telemarketers must operate within rules established by the CRTC ( in Canada. Regulations ( specify that “as a minimum, telemarketers must maintain ‘Do not call/fax lists’ and provide customers with a fax or telephone number where a responsible person can be reached.” Many (but not all) telemarketers are members of the Canadian Direct Marketing Association. You can fill out the Do Not Mail/Do Not Call registration form Online ( The CDMA forwards this information to members four times a year. This should greatly reduce the number of nuisance calls you receive. The government also publishes a pamphlet ( called What You Should Know About Telemarketing that gives advice on how to avoid fraud and other deceptive telemarketing practices.

Even if a telemarketer is not a member of the CDMA, they still must keep a Do Not Call list, and add you to this at your request. Failure to do so entitles you to make a complaint with the CRTC. Their website also includes step-by-step instructions on how to get removed from lists. I am in the process of a complaint against the Calgary Cerebral Palsy Association, who has refused to stop calling me after I have made over a dozen formal requests that they do so. This is rare, however. I usually have success with asking companies to remove me from their list. You can go a step further, and call a company and let them know that you think less of them because they have been making unsolicited calls (do not bother talking to the telemarketer). Another option, of course, is to get an unlisted number, but this will also make it harder for old friends/family to get in touch with you. This might be a good thing – it’s up to you.

You will never be completely free of nuisance calls, wrong numbers, and other such distractions, but you can use them work to your advantage. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, Peace is Every Step (1991, Bantam: New York), discusses our love/hate relationship with the telephone and how we can transform it from a source of stress to a means for relaxation. “The telephone,” Hanh explains, “is very convenient, but we can be tyrannized by it. We may find its ring disturbing or feel interrupted by too many calls. When we talk on the phone, we may forget that we are talking … wasting precious time. The telephone bell creates in us … some anxiety,… yet some force in us pulls us to the phone, we cannot resist. We are victims of our own telephone.” Hanh has some advice on how to turn this around. “The next time you hear the phone ring, just stay where you are, breathe in and out consciously, smile to yourself, and recite this verse: ‘Listen, listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.’ When the bell rings for the second time, you can repeat the verse, and your smile will be even more solid… You can afford to practice breathing and smiling like this, because if the person calling has something important to say, she will certainly wait for at least three rings.” By following Hanh’s suggesting, you can remind yourself to practice relaxation every day, and apply the same principles before you call someone else.

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