Today I was overhearing an interesting conversation between my father and a door-to-door salesperson. It was interesting to witness the inability of my father to say no, and the tactics that the salesperson used. Nobody knew that I was listening.

My father tried to tell that salesperson no perhaps 5 times. My father was always trying to fish for arguments to justify the no. The salesperson seemed to be listening carefully, making sounds that indicate acknowledgment and understanding. But then when he began to speak again, he ignored the argument and tried to give reasons why buying apples is good. Or he would seem to offer something special to my father by reducing the minimum order quantity.

As an argument, my father said something along the lines of there being many people in the household that all need to be financially supported, and that therefore buying these overpriced apples is not a good choice. Though he did not mention the apples being overpriced. And the salesperson without a moment's hesitation interjected that if there are so many people, then it would be better to buy 40kg instead of 20. And he managed to say it in a joking tone, making it not seem offensive.

(So a joking tone of voice can be used to put options on the table that would be socially inappropriate otherwise, without taking a reputation hit. Interesting.)

And for offering something special he used a cute little psychological trick. Ideally, you would like to sell as much as possible. Having a minimum buy quantity is good to check the reaction of the potential buyer. If it is only a bit above what he would like to spend you might be able to talk him into buying more than he otherwise would. If he does not seem like he is going to take the offer you can just lower the minimum buy quantity. And then it seems like the seller is doing you a favor. But of course, selling anything is better than nothing. And the seller did never offer to lower the price.

He only talked about that there is some other place my father probably never heard of, where the apples cost 5$, and that therefore his offer of 4$ per 1kg of apples must be good.

The seller started with 30kg being the minimum order quantity the first time he showed up. Each time after that my father said no I think. And each time the seller lowered the minimum order quantity. From 30 to 24 to 20. And this time he lowered it again to 15, and then finally to 10kg. That is still 40$ of apples. I guess that this is still profitable for the seller (taking into account travel time and expenses). But it seems to scratch the bottom. It all of course depends on how many other buyers there are, and how far they are apart. I am in the countryside right now, and not in a big city.

It might even be worth taking a small loss for the seller, not breaking the buyer's streak of buying. I would expect that each time you buy the same thing from the same seller, it gets harder and harder to not buy again as a habit forms. Perhaps the buyer just had a bad day and next time he would buy again. "You want to find customers and hold them" is advice I have heard multiple times, though I don't remember where I have heard it.

How not to say no

I don't think my father has learned how to say no yet. He was always trying to justify his no. But of course, justifying your no only makes sense if the other person tries to find the truth of whether the no is the best thing for you. And the salesperson is already set very hard on that selling apples is what is good. It is sort of the Principal-Agent problem, in terms of wanting the salesperson (agent) to be an interlocutor to you (the Principal) that helps you figure out the right decision.

Giving a justification is only an invitation for it to be attacked in a situation like this. Of course, this varies from salesperson to salesperson. If you talk to somebody in a shop they will often be much less aggressive in this regard. Perhaps because not 100% of their income is determined by how much you sell (I don't know if this is true here but in general it probably matters a lot more to door-to-door salespeople, how much you sell). It also seems worse for a shop to have a reputation for being pushy. You can then just go to another shop. But you don't decide directly if the door-to-door salesperson rings your bell.

Also, my father was not sounding very confident when saying no. Maybe humans don't like to say no by default, because they want to avoid any possible negative social consequences. And giving a strong no with no justification would have stronger consequences. But of course, there are no social consequences when saying no to a salesperson.

Especially not, if you say no in polite but still strong, which is totally possible and the way you should do it by default I think. I did manage to turn away Jehovah's Witnesses in less than one minute, while still being polite. If you turn people away in a polite way, you also don't feel bad afterward, which could happen otherwise.


The problem of saying no does not only appear in social interactions. Part of being conscientious is saying no many times a day, to all of the things that you should not do when thinking about it seriously for at least 10 seconds.

Though this is only part of the problem. Thinking seriously for 10 seconds in the first place is a lot harder.

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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:43 PM

If you're able to convince the salesperson that you're definitely not going to buy, then it is in their own interest to move on to the next potential buyer and stop wasting their time with you. However this may be more easily said than done.

I can generally do this, so I will try to say something about it :-)

My hunch for how I got the power is that I had numerous "terrible jobs" that helped me pay for college, and which I look back on as having sometimes been more educational than many of my "more forgettable" classes.  One of these jobs involved door-to-door non-profit donation solicitation. I was selling almost literally nothing except "getting to feel good about the environment", which is quite a thing to try to sell.

In practice I listened to lots of people explain why they weren't donating, and my manager didn't like that I propagated many of the questions back to him, rather than propagating lots of no-strings-money back to him, and eventually it was pretty clear that I wasn't going to swiftly hit "the higher quotas (in excess of guaranteed daily pay) expected from experienced donation solicitors" and was let go. The experience gives me a foundation of empathy for the people doing the sales.

Personally I mostly don't even mind if people knock on my door and try to sell me something, unless they do it at weird hours in ways that breaks my time into smaller parts when I was using a long stretch to do a non-trivial piece of thinking.

Granting that I allow the break in my time and even opened the door...

...usually the sales pitch is from a normal person with high sales skill, and generally I'm friendly and explain that I did door-to-door stuff myself, and I admire something about their technique, and I make it clear that I will almost certainly not buy.

Really, the only way I would buy from a normal person is if they taught me so much about the overall market and product that I'd feel guilty not compensating them for the educational value of the sales effort (which is the same moral principle which caused me to buy things from Amazon for many years, for products I couldn't have discovered any other way but which were cheaper on other websites with worse metadata), but this feeling of reciprocal exchange almost certainly can't be the case for whatever will be said by a random door-to-door seller who doesn't bring a multi-media presentation with a bibliography (or something).

My commensurate skill and "seeing of them as an OK person with a sometimes icky job" comes through pretty quickly, and then it becomes very clear to them that they shouldn't hang out too long for economic reasons... but then like 50% of the time they seem full of relief to be treated like a human, by a human, who has escaped "object-object relational sadness" and I actually kind of like these moments, and they seem to as well, and then the moment ends and we get go back to our respective ways of being busy :-)

A couple times I've offered them some lemonade or whatever, and once (this was a whole family thing though, with my parents as the instigators) it got as far as inviting some Mormon boys back for dinner and theology, but we didn't crack them as far as I'm aware.  All of their pitches were designed to switch people away from being babptists or catholics or 7th day adventists or whatever. Our pitch that there's a positive absence of archaeological evidence for Jospeh Smight's claims of a lost tribe of Israel in north america seemed to roll off of them like water from a duck's back.

The only exception to "a generally positive experience" with sales folk is when like... like... a developmentally disabled people shows up on my door, which is just... uughhh(!)... so complicated..  but then... in those cases often I just donate money to them directly as an act of interpersonal charity? And if they have enough pride/ego/whatever to refuse such a donation then sometimes I fall back buying something I don't need so that developmentally disabled people can have jobs they are proud of? It's like a choice between two kinds of guilt, and I don't have a good way of resolving it right now.

I think I'm not alone in having a "pity gap" and I think girlscout cookie sales seem to have successfully weaponized this gap in many people's defenses (modulo by asking for a slightly different kind of unique moral toleration for a different kind of "objectively charity-worthy" person) and there are some interesting conversational gambits possible here <3

One thing is that the company sales system seems to know that people like me might try to just donate directly to the girl scouts, and sometimes they manage to inject "rules against just taking donation money" and I think the cookie manufacturers (understandably(?) in the valid(?) pursuit of money) want this rule...

...but I feel like the girlscout troops themselves "abstractly should not want this rule"?? But some of them have it. Which is weird.

One time a mom of a girlscout gave me an explanation about how the educational value to the cookie selling project included inculcating a coherent and pragmatically viable work ethic in the kids via baby steps that could launch higher level things that are less fake... which... was a good point? Maybe?

Certainly my ~4 weeks in a door-to-door sales program was retrospectively-positively-formative for me.

I think maybe it might still be a "rationalist thing" to try CFAR-style COmfort Zone Expansions (COZ-Es)? I'm not sure about the details there, but I DO think that some important "mental powers" might be available some limited experience in professional sales in a way that is good for normal adults in a normal modern society to have.

Roughly: sales isn't illegal, so defense is necessary, so learning the basics of attacking is valid and potentially even wholesome (EG as with the girlscouts) <3

...usually the sales pitch is from a normal person with high sales skill, and generally I'm friendly and explain that I did door-to-door stuff myself, and I admire something about their technique, and I make it clear that I will almost certainly not buy.


I worked as a canvasser for a year and a half and I can say that this is definitely one of the best deflections. When you're working as a canvasser you're basically running off a choose your own adventure script where all the outcomes are "they buy the thing" and the choices are all the possible objections and your responses to those objections. As long as you're still interacting with the script, you're not really talking to them as humans at all, you're just getting them to regurgitate memorized lines. This also happens with a lot of IT support centers, you have to get them off script if you want to do more than interact with the script. If you're just trying to get out of things as quickly as possible, the fastest way to break the script is to just outright deny or express distaste for the thing they're trying to push on you. I didn't want to waste my time and emotional energy arguing with people who actively disliked the thing I was selling, and it was constantly reinforced by the management teams that we should focus on targeting people who already liked what we did but just weren't contributing financially to it. That let us hit them with a vague sense of guilt and responsibility. And if that didn't work, you could always be like "look I just need to make quota" which was very manipulative and really requires you to be willing to feel like an asshole to back down.

Usually I don't want to be that mean in order to force them off, and in that case, you can just break the script by talking about what they're doing for what it is: a job. When I interact with canvassers I pretty much immediately go into the sort of "shop talk" mode that we'd use to talk to each other. It also helps if you're the one questioning them, they'll try and get back to the script, but the further afield you take them, the more skill it takes on their part to do this and most canvassers only do it for a few months. "Oh who's the company you're working for? What sort of campaigns have you been on? How are you liking the work? Are you having an easy time meeting your quotas? Yeah it can be hard sometimes. It's nice to get some fresh air and meet lots of people though isn't it? I met the mayor of Charleston when she was visiting once." etc etc etc. If they see you as a person in the right way, then usually they understand how kinda bullshit everything is enough that they'll start feeling bad about being too pushy or aggressive. Results may vary, just some stream of consciousness thoughts. 

The important thing to realize is that although business does not have to be adversarial (there are genuine win/win proposals), it can be. It depends on the other person.

Once someone starts pushing you to make a trade, you should reject in principle, otherwise you are creating an "asshole filter" -- the people who respect your preferences will leave you alone, the ones who don't care about your preferences will keep talking to you. You should refuse politely first, but when the salesperson persists, you should now assume that the interaction is adversarial, and that anything they say is just another tactic to scam you. Which implies that there is no reason to listen to them (unless you want to e.g. write a blog about it later).

Salesmen actively exploit the fact that our social instincts do not match our current environment. You try to be polite, sometimes to the degree where it costs you resources (if you buy the apples), essentially for two evolutionary reasons. First, to avoid a potentially costly conflict. But it is unlikely that the salesman would e.g. stab you with a knife if you refuse to buy the apples! Second, to keep a reputation of a polite person, in the eyes of your partner and the onlookers. But there are no onlookers, and the salesman is not going to interact with you in the future in any other way than maybe trying to sell you more apples!

Not sure what is the most elegant way to solve such situation, but maybe saying "No, thank you, I am not interested" and smiling politely while closing the door (actively ending the conversation), or if the dialog does not happen next to your door, then some equivalent physical action, such as turning and walking away. By saying the polite words you satisfy your social instict that wants to believe that you were polite even if it does not make much sense, and now either the interaction is over, or the salesman needs to counter-act your physical action -- by putting their feet in the door, ringing your bell again, grabbing your shoulder, or following you on the street -- in which case you should now only comment on their behavior, ask them to stop doing it, or threaten to call for help. Now you have made the adversarial nature of the interaction explicit, so you won't feel the pressure to be polite.

I am sure the good salesmen have some clever counter-move to this. Maybe start talking quickly again before your close the door, so it would feel impolite to close the door in the middle of their sentence. Maybe calling you out on (what they reframe as) your impolite behavior, like: "why are you so hostile to me? I just offered you some apples, man!". I think this is still an improvement, because it ruins the "we are just talking nicely" frame. And I guess the proper reaction is just to say shortly "not interested" or "please leave me alone" and continue closing the door / walking away.

...perhaps we should offer people some training for situations like this. So when the actual situation comes, they will be less surprised by it...

I wonder what the equivalent strategy for conscientiousness would be: looking accusingly at the chocolate and saying "no, you are just trying kill me", or looking accusingly at web browser and saying "no, you are just trying to waste all my free time today"?

perhaps we should offer people some training for situations like this.

The salespeople have training for it.  But there's a big assymetry involved - it pays for salespeople to get better at selling, so the training is (to the extent it's effective) self-funding.  Victims don't get paid, so it's hard to justify the cost/expense of training.   This is especially true for this type of training, which consists of "let's practice getting past the discomfort by experiencing it multiple times and remembering to always focus on our goal".

Which highlights the main assymetry.  The salesperson HAS a goal - they want to sell something.  The victim does NOT have a clear goal - they want to feel good about themselves on many dimensions (politeness, providing for family, getting good deals, etc.), and haven't thought about what they want from THIS interaction.  

One of the most basic general sales scripts is this: After a purchase has been made, say "Great. Today only and for people who have already bought from us, we have 25% off our XXX, if you just check catalogue page 19."

Whether they buy or not, you follow with, "We also have 25% off our XXY, if you have a look here."

And on and on.

The script is simply not to go away, keep asking for more sales, until the buyer breaks social decorum by being literally rude and just saying (some version of), "Stop. I am done. This conversation is over."

I've never understood how anyone has trouble saying no more than "not interested" and closing the door or ending the call.

They're the ones choosing to interrupt your life. You don't owe them attention, an explanation, or anything else when you find that interruption not warranted. They are, in fact, being quite rude.

Seems to me like a question of "how much do you forgive", which people mostly choose instinctively. Forgive too little, and then you needlessly escalate unintended mistakes. Forgive too much, and then some people will exploit you.

In theory, the best solution would be to find out exactly what happened, and react accordingly. But of course people will lie about this. Another strategy is to be charitable first, but then put abusers on a blacklist. Which doesn't work when you interact with strangers. Yet another strategy is to "trust but verify" the people you know, and automatically mistrust strangers. That also has some costs, plus the problem of how much interaction is needed to reclassify someone from a stranger to an acquaintance. (And some salesmen have a way to hack this algorithm, by insisting that you introduce them to your friends, which gives them fake "friend of a friend" credentials.)

Essentially, this is the thing I hate about salesmen and similar folks: A certain degree of forgiveness is socially useful, it reduces the conflicts, allows to overcome misunderstandings, etc. But there are people who burn the commons for fun and profit.

Sure. I have an opposite problem, of ending the interaction with at least the minimum of politeness instead of anger or utter contempt. I typically manage it, though. (though I don't actually have to deal with door-to-door salesmen ever, and phone sales extremely rarely. So it's more people who approach me on the street to try and sell stuff or ask for money).

Nevertheless, this has been interesting to consider. While I'm not vulnerable to door-to-door sales, I recently noticed I may be vulnerable to less obvious variants of the same kind of manipulation. I feel this is an example of a general pattern in social interactions (or, say, work relations).

You feel that the true reason to say no is impolite/unacceptable to say.
You say something that sounds polite/reasonable instead, even if that is not your true reason (though it may be part of the reason).
You have now pseudo-committed to acting like it is your actual reason to say no. This has created an attack surface that can be exploited.

A book that has been super helpful for me in these situation is "When I say no I feel guilty" by Manuel J. Smith. His "Broken Record" technique works especially well in the salesperson situation.

Can this be seen as something of a clash of culture type situation? I know a number of Asian cultures have cultural distain/taboos on saying no too directly. Even in western cultures telling someone no too bluntly is considered a bit rude. But sales culture is about not accepting a No answer. I think that puts someone trying to be polite to the salesperson in an unnatural (assuming they don't deal with salespeople on a regular basis) position.

I've always simply said I either have no current need or no interest and that I'm sure others in the area may be interested and wish them luck in their efforts with others. It's a fairly polite, I think, way of clearly saying the conversation about the sale is over and further efforts to sell to me will be very rude on the salesperson's part.  

This is an area where you have to actively fight .  Someone who is there primarily to sell you something is a VERY different interaction than a neighbor or family member (and those interactions vary extremely widely as well).

Slamming the door is uncomfortable for many, especially if you don't understand the interplay of context and politeness.  A good middle ground (which I also use for phones) is "Sorry, I don't do any business door-to-door; feel free to leave a flyer.  Goodbye."