Guest Post: PWDs and High-Pressure Sales Techniques

Hi, I’m Cydne. I’m a pansexual, biofemale whose gender identity changes from day to day. I have severe mental health problems, and Aspergers too, as well as arthritis and IBS. Joy! I’m a massive Trekkie and a video game nerd, and I usually blog at

There was a day last year I remember quite clearly. I went shopping. I spent 20 minutes talking to one of those guys who proposition people on the street for charity donations. He was collecting for a charity I do not agree with, and he was asking for a donation I could not afford. I ended up donating anyway. About an hour beforehand, I bought some overpriced cheese because the aggressive free samples guy made me feel guilty by handing me the product right after I took a sample. I’d also gone large that day on my McDonald’s order, because I forgot to ask for a medium, and the server said “So that’s a large, yeah?” and I was too embarrassed to say no.

Anyone with conditions like mine will have similar stories to tell. Those of us with social phobia who are afraid of confrontation. Those of us on the Autistic Spectrum who are easily led and manipulated. Those of us with depression who are lonely and just thankful for someone to talk to. We are the ones who are most easily tricked by aggressive sales techniques, most likely to tip high when a server pretends to be our friend, most likely to keep something we don’t want for fear of confrontation upon returning it. Yet, statistically, those of us with mental illnesses are more likely to be jobless, and thus, more likely to be unable to afford the things we buy out of fear and guilt. According to a UK study, only 20% of people with mental illnesses are employed.

It is likely that the companies who instruct and train their employees to act in this manner are aware of the effect they have on us. A friend of mine took a seminar in “Assertiveness and Sales Techniques.” He was taught how to spot weaknesses and take advantage of them in order to sell products. He was taught to be slightly flirty with women who seem to care a lot about their appearance, and taught to act like a kind friend to people who shop alone — especially women who look nervous or unhappy. In short, he was taught to spot psychological weak points and use those to sell goods.

I doubt his experience is a rare one. These multinational corporations pay millions of dollars to research firms to help them improve sales. Sales research groups use psychologists to help them better understand how to sell to people, especially on the case of body language. The effect Autism and mental health issues have on body language is well known. So there’s a fair chance that they know they are harming those of us with mental health problems and Autism or Aspergers, for the sake of sales, both emotionally and financially, similar to how they know they are harming those with body dysmorphic disorder by advertising using only photos of the slim and airbrushed.

It’s the donation soliciting people that affect me the most, I think. They seem to deliberately target me, perhaps because I used to shop alone. I find confrontation terrifying. I find meeting new people terrifying. And I’m terrified of what people think of me. So, when a friendly looking guy approaches me and asks me for “a moment of my time to discuss Oxfam,” I find myself unable to walk away, lest he judge me, or say something to me to make me feel bad in some manner.

They always say things like “it’s only £3 a week, anyone can afford that!,” and I find myself so ashamed of being on benefits and having shopping bags with me, that I have to agree and sign up. Even now, I feel like I should tell you that my bags usually contain pet food or replacement clothing, in case you judge me for how I spend my benefits. Heck, let’s be honest, saying “everyone can afford £3 a week” is pretty darned classist, too.

A day spent shopping may not seem all that memorable to most people. But my day shopping last year will likely stay with me forever, serving as a reminder of my vulnerability. I no longer shop alone. I do my shopping online, or with a trusted companion. I am a vulnerable person, through no fault of my own. This is not about being easily persuaded, or being a stereotypical “shopaholic” female with no money management skills. This is about being ill, and knowing that most companies out there will gladly take advantage of that.

15 thoughts on “Guest Post: PWDs and High-Pressure Sales Techniques

  1. Great post. I run into this problem all of the time, often as a result of liberal/progressive activists. This is probably just an artifact of where I live–I’m sure that if I lived in another area I would have more of a problem with conservative activists–but it’s still incredibly frustrating that so many self-proclaimed progressives and radicals are so ignorant of the fact that their methods present accessibility problems based on disability and class. Recently I was solicited by numerous people working for one particular environmental group on the same day. During one of these instances I became unable to speak at all when trying to say no. The good part about that was that at least it made the solicitor realize that she needed to back off. Urgh. People shouldn’t have to become that stressed before they’re left alone.

    I’ve been roped into giving hundreds of dollars (over a long period) to a particular charity, somehow ended up with a credit card with an outrageously high interest rate, and more. It’s just really hard for me to say no when presented with a persistent and verbally skilled salesperson. “It’s only x amount per week, that’s just a cup of coffee.” “Don’t you care about this cause?” “It’ll be easy, it only takes a few minutes.” Somehow making up fake (or real) excuses doesn’t seem to work. The only thing which does work (besides giving money) is simply not engaging the salesperson at all, which is socially frowned upon as rude. Yet pressuring someone into spending money they don’t really have is acceptable!

  2. Oh wow. I’ve had experiences like this before – buying something I didn’t want, signing up to things I had no interest in participating in, just because I was overwhelmed and people wouldn’t give me space to think and my default reaction when I’m overwhelmed is to just agree to everything (or, more insiduously, to have their opinion overwrite mine until it feels like a good idea to me… for about five minutes). I’ve never actually connected them to my AS and mental health issues before and have always thought of them as a sort of shameful failure of me to behave the way I ought to (thanks a lot, parents) so you pointing this out as an ableism issue is a serious “how on earth did I not realise that?!” moment.

    These days I can sort of manage these situations by just repeating “no, I’m not interested” over and over, but it makes me feel horrible, I’m pretty sure people could still snare me if they didn’t make it obvious what they were after from the start and I can really see why it’s not an option for everyone (it wasn’t always for me, at that.)

  3. I have Asperger’s Syndrome and severe dyspraxia, and this has regularly happened to me. Until I was in my late teens I never bought anything in a shop without the support of my parents or a friend unless I had no other choice in the matter, partly because of the anxiety associated by interacting with a stranger, but mostly because of my experience of incidence like this. I can cope with shopping if the cashier follows the usual script: says hello, takes my items, scans them, tells me the price, asks if I need a bag, and hands over the change. I can’t cope if they deviate from that, even if it’s only to make pleasantries about the weather. I end up walking off and leaving my shopping behind or forgetting my change because the routine has been disrupted.

    My worst encounter with a salesperson occurred when I was shopping in Warehouse (a major British clothes shop). I was nineteen at the time. I handed over the trousers I had chosen, and the saleswoman immediately asked if I would like to take out a ‘loyalty card’. I said no. She said, “You don’t have to pay for it, it’s free, and you’ll be able to collect points. You can use it to pay for clothes in here.” She went on in quite a pushy way, and I said, “OK, then.” I don’t make eye contact very well and I have a habit of flicking things in front of my eyes (usually pencils). I tend to sway back and forth on my feet. I was visibly odd. I know that now. I think that’s why she targeted me. She handed me a sheet of paper to sign. It was covered in small print. She gave me no chance to read it, but whisked it away from me and said, “I’ll just pop this in your bag.” Then she said, “It will take a few days for your card to activate, so you can’t use it to pay for the trousers now, but you can use it the next time you come in store.”

    Hold on. I thought you said it was a loyalty card? How could I use it to pay for something when I haven’t accrued any points? I thought these things, but I didn’t dare to ask the questions. I couldn’t get them out of my mouth.

    When I got home my mum and dad looked at the typewritten sheet and discovered that I had just been given a credit card with an appalling interest rate. According to the terms and conditions, I had signed myself into a contract with the company with no way out. They went steaming up to Warehouse and confronted that saleswoman. Apparently she was very unpleasant with them, claiming that I knew exactly what I had been signing and that she had ‘explained all the details’. When my dad told her that I was disabled and wouldn’t have been able to say no even if I had wanted to, she replied, “Well, in that case you shouldn’t be letting her out on her own, should you.”

    In the end the manager rang up their head office and the credit card was cancelled, because my parents threatened to invoke the Disability Discrimination Act. I don’t know if it would have had any relevance in a case like this, but the manager didn’t know either, and she was nervous about the possible repercussions for her shop. I haven’t bought anything from Warehouse since, and that one incident undid all the good work I had accomplished in learning to shop independently – I had to begin at the beginning.

    This had serious implications for my eating. I suffer from an eating disorder, and I was often unable to eat in my university dining hall – too exposed, too crowded, food not acceptable to my brain, etc. – I often had to get ready-prepared food a local noodle bar. (I lived off vegetable noodles at one point.) Placing an order alone was too difficult for me, even though I always asked for the exact same thing, so I relied on friends to do it. If no friend was available, I didn’t eat.

  4. Oh gosh, yes to all of the above. I particularly cannot abide the ones who come to your door trying to sell you something. I have been steamrollered into changing energy companies so many times… and I’m not fond of charity muggers, either. There are a lot of Highly Extroverted Men in Brisbane who go for you if you’re female and vulnerable looking, I have noticed. It’s really quite distressing, being accosted like that.

  5. *sigh* I just realized that this has been happening to me (though not at all to the extreme you describe) since I was a teenager, and that internalized ableism/psychophobia was making me think that I just needed to toughen up.

    Really furious now, and feeling like there just is no safe place for me as a person with depression.

  6. @jeneil

    The scenario you describe is exactly why I get furious at people when they say that extrovert privilege doesn’t exist in western societies. It does, and people use it all the damn time to hurt not only introverts, but people who aren’t neurotypical.

    Fucking fuck. I hate humanity sometimes.

  7. I wrote an article on street charity fund-raisers (we call them “charity muggers”) and proselytisers on my blog in November, after a friend was harassed in the street (she has Asperger’s, is Muslim and wears a headscarf) in a provincial town; it’s here. I have Asperger’s too (less severely than she does, I think) and tend to adopt a defensive posture towards these people, and deal with them by averting my eyes as soon as I approach them, and if they are persistent, by putting my palm out towards their face. I worry sometimes that I might end up doing the same to someone I know if they approach me in the street, particularly out of “left field” as I often don’t readily recognise people I know if I see them out of place (like home or work).

    The tendency of shop staff to greet shoppers as if they have known them for years is a relatively new thing, and extremely annoying. I had some guy play that with me in a shop a couple of weeks ago (in the clothes shop White Stuff) and kept thinking, “do I know this guy? Why is he talking to me like we know each other?”. I had come to buy my aunt a gift voucher for Christmas, not to make conversation, and I was on edge from having been walking on ice for the past half hour.

    Apparently the charity muggers are exploiting a loophole in the law; they cannot collect money, but can sign people up for direct debits. You may be able to cancel it by simply notifying your bank rather than telling the charity you don’t want to donate to them anymore. Also, it is almost certainly illegal to sell someone a credit card by calling it a loyalty card, because they are two totally different things, regardless of the Disability Discrimination Act. It’s making a false representation for pecuniary advantage, which is fraud.

  8. I hate the pushy, high-pressure approach from salespeople and charity muggers.

    I have started saying the truth to them straight away “I hate being asked for money on the street!”

    The charity muggers then look at me funny, but they leave me alone, which is what I want.

    But it is all so stressful. I wish that they would just not approach me in the first place.

  9. Yup, especially a problem with door salesmen, since I’m more likely to encounter them alone.
    Once they came around when I was not capable of understanding words, but I could tell they were asking questions, and I was also overloaded (having strangers at the door doesn’t help), and I defaulted to just saying yes a lot to get it over with quickest. I ended up with a subscription to some magazine for a minimum of two years, which also required me to buy something from the magazine at least 4 times a year. I couldn’t (and can’t) even really remember what happened during the talk.

    After the two years were up my partner cancelled it over the phone (because it had to be over the phone).
    Those salespeople were probably trained to pounce on people like me. I know they go after a female relative of my partner harder too, who is also non-neurotypical (not autistic, trying not to give too much info).

    At the bank I also wasn’t able to understand words when I was going to close my account, and I would have ended up with more accounts instead, but I had someone with me.

    So now I do indeed just not respond at all when I’m alone. If the doorbell rings and I’m not expecting anyone or anything, I just don’t answer. I don’t answer the phone unless I know who’s ringing, and on the street I just walk by, or even through people if I have to. I will blurt out a loud NO if I can and generally make an effort to look pissed off.

    But when you tell people not to ring or come around without telling you in advance because you won’t answer the phone/door, they tend to think you’re joking. And they definitely think it’s rude, even in this country where it’s not common to go over to other people unannounced.

  10. I do the phone thing too – I just don’t answer my landline unless it’s late in the evening, because the only person who ought to have that number is my mother and she only calls around that time. All the same, it’s incredibly stressful when it rings and I end up sitting there feeling horribly guilty for not answering and terrified that it’s actually something important. Sometimes I do anyway, usually it’s a recorded message (where I feel no compunction about hanging up) and sometimes I do end up with a live one and needing to somehow explain to them that no not interested go away go away go away. It always makes me furious afterwards, because they just made me drain my spoons severely for no fucking reason whatsoever. Apparently there’s a way to sign up to some kind of no-unsolicited-calls list – I’m looking into it but it requires paperwork *shudders* so my NAS worker is helping me through it. I’ve only once had unsolicited people at the door – religious, wanting to talk about the Bible – and it was awful. I managed to get them to go away but it took ages they just would not let up and I was too afraid of being rude to slam the door in their face. (Which, I’m trying to convince myself that it’s much ruder to decide to knock on my door and try to convert me/sell stuff to me/etc. with no forewarning or asking me if I’m okay with that, so slamming the door is actually a perfectly acceptable response and totally proportionate. It’s not easy; I have real problems with being intentionally rude, which I suspect is also common in spectrum folks and/or people with mental health conditions.)

    Something which has helped me, dunno if this’ll help anyone else, in terms of unsolicited calling is to tell people that I do not make financial decisions over the phone as a rule, if you want me to buy anything or sign up for anything or do ANYTHING that involves money you send me a letter or an e-mail. This makes it easier to cope with opinion-overwriting and also with default agreeing with people, because I’m not saying I don’t *want* what they’re trying to sell, I’m just saying that I need the information in a format that’s more accessible for me (and it works well as a rule in general because people not giving you stuff in writing = dodgy is a reasonable rule of thumb). I do need to have a certain level of spoons for this – if I’m feeling seriously overloaded and/or my ability to understand speech is on the fritz it doesn’t work so well.

  11. I’m also autistic and I can definitely relate to not being able to navigate hostile and high-pressure social situations. I’ve gotten a lot better with just saying “no” right off the bat but once they engage me and I start to get personally involved it’s all over.

    My worst experience involved a very, very aggressive Army recruiter. I was approached by an Army recruiter and, because I was interested in learning more about a specific job, agreed to talk to him. After a few minutes of discussing the particular job he began to pressure me into signing papers and starting an application process. He told me that nothing at that point was obligating me and that he just wanted to see if I was even qualified for the position. He pressured me for a while until I agreed.

    Of course, now that I had started the process all he had to do was bully me from one step to another. When it came time to fill out a medical pre-screen and I mentioned some health problems he told me that they weren’t that serious and were inconsequential anyway so I should lie about them because it would “make the process easier.” He bullied and pressured me until I did, even though I was applying for a high-security position which would have meant that intelligence officers would have investigated me and almost certainly would have found out the truth about my health.

    At this point I was very scared and basically pretty sure that I didn’t want to join the army. I had just wanted some more information, I hadn’t made up my mind, and here I was at the intake office getting a physical (very humiliating, by the way). Then it became clear that I wasn’t going to get the job I wanted. I was relived because I thought that now I could go home and I wouldn’t have to join the Army that I was being pressured into.

    They presented me with a bunch of choices for jobs, none of them were very appealing. They told me I had to choose one and that I was being a coward or backing out at the last minute if I didn’t. They said that I had to make up my mind and that everyone was waiting for me. I didn’t know how to say no so I went ahead and did it and I signed up for a delayed enlistment.

    At that point I was in the Army, although I had no rank and I wasn’t drawing pay. I was contractually obligated to enlist on a certain date at which point I’d be shipped out for basic training. I was sworn in. Fortunately, at the time it was the policy of the Department of Defense that it was more work trying to retain or prosecute someone who goes AWOL on a delayed enlistment contract than they’re worth so with a lot of help from friends I sent in a letter explaining that I had no intention of showing up to basic training and, because they want a reason, that I was gay.

    The recruiter, when he got my letter, told me he was going to rip it up and not file it. He told me that because of it I would never be able to enlist (that was the point). But I had also sent a letter to the colonial in charge of enlistment for the region so he couldn’t just pretend the letter didn’t exist. He told me I had to come to the office. The captain yelled at me for about thirty minutes and tried to force me to sign a letter which stated that I had lied about being gay. I was fortunately able to resist that, but it wasn’t easy and pretty much the only thing keeping me focused was the fact that I had already done everything I needed to do to get out and that I knew that if I went back I would be giving up my transition.

    So yeah, I haven’t really told that story before because I still feel guilty about standing up for myself and saying no. I feel like I let the recruiter down even though he was abusing me and pressuring me into something when I couldn’t say no. Also, a lot of people wanted me in the Army because they thought it was going to “make a man out of me” and squish that silly gender thing.

  12. And the thing is – even *if* “everyone can afford £3 a week” (It’s a ridiculous statement, but *if* it was true)… I can name twenty (applicable to my area) charities off the top of my head. Wonder how they’d feel about suddenly being asked to give £60 a week? I imagine if you gave me google and five minutes I could come up with a hundred charities in England.

    So even if you can afford £3 – why do they deserve it more than the last guy who asked?

  13. We may already be giving our £3 a week before we meet the fundraiser, and if we don’t have the money to spare, we may contribute in other ways such as through volunteer work. We may also need it for things other than giving it to charity, such as “personal needs” (do they know about that?).

    Also, with regard to the over-personal shop assistants I mentioned earlier, I spoke to my cousin (who has worked in retail more recently than me) and she told me that their managers insist that they do that (which they didn’t when I worked in retail in the 1990s) and that they don’t really like doing it. The “mystery shoppers” will always penalise them for not getting onto shoppers pretty much as soon as they walk in.

  14. @Indigo Jo, during my (incredibly brief) stint in retail at Christmas 2001, our bonuses were linked to how many people we could talk into signing up to a store card. I hated it and never asked anyone because it was such an awful process even if they said Yes. The stress of that kind of job didn’t help either. Unsurprisingly I have not worked in that environment since.

  15. “I’ve gotten a lot better with just saying “no” ”

    Same here. What also helps is that I’m married so I generally don’t like spending money without running it past my husband first. At best I’ll give a non-committal answer. (Although if you want a rant about door-to-door salesmen AND sexism, ask me how I got a subscription to Maxim).

    What frustrates my husband, though, is when we get telemarketers or surveys calling and I don’t ask who it is. They’ll often ask for him, and my default reaction in those situations is to pass the phone off (was easier when our caller display worked–I just didn’t answer). If he’s out or they’re asking me, I can tell them no and don’t call back. If he’s home though, that subroutine gets bypassed. Sometimes being taught manners sucks.

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