And thank you for asking

These five little words – spoken in that order – should sound a warning bell. Much like a house or car alarm, they tell you that someone who you don’t know from a bar of soap is about to get up close and personal with you. But unlike a burglar or a car thief to whom you owe no courtesy, the bearer of these words is usually a call centre agent. And by the time you’ve reached the point where the words “And thank you for asking” are spoken, it’s too late to be rude.

Let me explain because I’m one of the poor bastards who always get caught. A few years into the new South Africa I quickly learnt the importance of asking people how they were and sounding interested in their replies. I burnt my fingers a couple of times when I thought I could be my usual curt self with my clipped responses. They weren’t having any of it. By now, of course, I’ve been trained well. So when a complete stranger calls me up and says, “Please could I speak to Mr Schalk Lourens,” and I reply with the single word, “speaking”, I know that I’m probably done for. And then he or she launches their prepared speech and sails steadily on:

“Good day, Mr Lourens, you are speaking to Charity Jooste and I’m calling you from — . How are you today?” (There is always that weird, unaccounted-for stress on the word “are”. You ARE speaking to Charity Jooste … . I don’t get it.) I am well mannered – it’s one of my weaknesses – and I burnt my fingers early on in the new South Africa, so I always reply, “Very well thank you and you?”

“I’m fine thank you,” Charity replies. “And thank you for asking,” she adds. And then I’m completely stumped. That deer-in-the-headlights daze comes over me as I find myself wondering why Charity would thank me for asking her how she is. And while I’m opening and closing my mouth like a gold fish, trying desperately to get the hang of the whole thing, Charity homes in and takes control of the conversation.

Generally she wants to sell me something. Or she wants to tell me about some amazing cell phone deal that’s going to change my life. Or she’ll explain the key differentiator of a particular life insurance company or bank. But as much as I hate or just don’t want the product that Charity so wants to tell me about, it’s always that five-word response that leaves me dazed and slightly reeling. I have a vague sense that I no longer know who I am. Like a mild form of amnesia.

Why would anyone thank me for asking them how they are?

By then she’s well into the second paragraph of her scripted tirade and, despite the mental knock I’ve just taken I have still managed, rather stupidly, to encourage her with the occasional “Yes” or “I see” or “Oh, OK …”. It’s all part of that well-mannered handicap I mentioned before. And then comes the realization that I now have to fight if I want go get out of her clutches.

This part is always hard. Charity has an answer for all my rebuffs. She hears my objection, she says, but have I heard that A, B, C and D and do I know that X, Y and Z? No? Not to mention the fact that P, Q and R, and not forgetting L, M and N. Dear, sweet Charity. She just doesn’t want to take No for an answer, no matter how hard I try.

Eventually I escape – I always do in the end – but not without difficulty. Usually I have to raise my voice or become a bit rude myself to convince Charity that the time really has come for her to go and leave me in peace. And, once she is gone, I spend a good number of moments pondering the atmosphere just in front of my face, wondering again at that strange phenomenon of thanking complete strangers for having asked them how they are.

Is it a call centre strategy? Confuse the poor sod you’re speaking to so that you temporarily incapacitate him – mentally, at least – to allow you to get your sales pitch in? I think maybe it is.

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