I have an ability to define my own space in the city; I can stand in a crowd of thousands and still maintain my own boundaries. However there is a particular form of boundary interruption that tests my limits; I’m not sure what they are actually called, but it’s the people on the street who are attempting to get you to join…something. Unfortunately, I seem especially unable to avoid encounters with them. I’m not sure if it’s that I look approachable (or perhaps gullible). But these people latch on to me and won’t take no for an answer no matter how much I protest I’m not interested in even talking to them. Unfortunately, my work is right next to Central Station in Sydney and there are usually a phalanx of them standing at the entrances waiting for passerby possibilities.
I am just not good at turning people away in these situations because they are often smiling and pleasant and I don’t want to seem rude (I am seriously trying not to obtain the permanent ‘do not interact with me in any way’ city scowl face). However, today, I was approached by a fresh young faced representative of [well known Australian not-for-profit which I shall not name]. I made clear to him that I didn’t want to stop and speak and kept on walking. He walked with me. I said I really didn’t want to speak. He persisted; ‘Haven’t you heard of XXX?’ ‘Yes’ I said, ‘I am a member’ (which, in fact, I am) and I walked on. As I walked away, he said, ‘Well I know that’s a lie.’
I stopped. For a moment, I’m sure there was some deep desire to unleash righteousness upon him, but I just quietly said, ‘no, really; I’m a member already.’ Then I walked away; I walked away really hurt. I wasn’t so much hurt for myself, though I had just been called a liar by a complete stranger on the street. I was hurt at just another evidence of the ‘civility drain’ that seems so evident all around. Smokers blow smoke into the crowd at crosswalks. The loud music listers on the train. The people who do…all the other things…on the train. Why did that at all seem like an appropriate comment for him to make? Why, in the first instance, was it not my right to say that I did not want to stop and talk? Who is he to define what boundary choices I make?
As I came home, I reflected on what effect this same scenario might have on others. Were I a violent person; I might have reacted aggressively if challenged. I might have attacked this fellow for calling me a liar. What if I rarely went out and had issues with being in public to begin with; I might have completely withdrawn for weeks from an incident like this. I did come home, call the organisation he was representing and cancel my membership. I realise that it’s a large organisation and that one voice on the street does not represent the whole. But I explained to the membership rep on the phone what had happened and why I was withdrawing my support.
Organisations cannot harass people into support; I do wonder how many people on the street just delight in the approach of someone attempting to garner their dollars as they go to the train at the end of a busy work day. I am sure that insulting the potential (or current) member is not a good strategy at all.