Stephen Kahn

The entropy of salesmanship

In Hard to tell, Uncategorized on June 5, 2012 at 12:25 am

Humans are quite varied, as individuals and in the groups we call “cultures,” and civilizations. Over long periods of time we gradually change. One of the changes I perceive occurring (at least in my culture) is that we are developing quite a bit more of “sales resistance.”

Humans are curious creatures (in several senses). As we developed reason and language, we observed and drew conclusions and then attempted to persuade others. One person ate some plants, did not get sick; and told others: “This is good to eat.” Another person ate some plants; threw up; and told others, “Don’t eat that; it will make you puke.”

These efforts to convince other people of various practical and abstract ideas has been called salesmanship, proselytizing , and so on. For example, humans noted that plants died down in winter and came back in spring; they eventually concluded that “human death,” (a depressing event) might not be permanent; they began to develop religions which spoke of rebirth. At first, these ideas were rather crude and silly (wrapping pharaohs in mummies and burying them in huge pyramids); then they became crude and silly in more sophisticated ways, such as Christian burials and ideas about Heaven and Hell.

During my lifetime, I have noticed that humans have gradually developed more sales resistance. There is still lots of sales activity going on; radio, television, and the Internet are deluged with advertisements. However, in person to person activities, most of the people I know personally are constantly selling something (whether it is something practical – such as how to eat well, grow carrots, or how to worship God – but most people are very resistant to other’s sales efforts. And even those doing the selling are much more polite and tentative.

When I was in my thirties, my wife and I ran a small prepress business. I constantly got calls from people selling equipment and supplies. Aggressive sales people called on me in our shop. I clearly and vividly remember one salesman, selling an alternative brand of equipment than the one we used. He walked into the shop, followed me around as I worked, and constantly explained to me how his brand of equipment would be cheaper to operate, easier to operate, and more effective in getting my work done. He offered to bring in one of his machines (which would have been quite an elaborate, expensive, and difficult operation at that time) and do all my work for a day, to demonstrate how much better his equipment could carry out our work. While I was irritated by his persistence, I did in fact admire his effort and determination. However, I refused his offer.

In fact, I had studied the matter enough to realize that all three major brands of equipment in the business at that time had good points and bad points, and all three could do the work we did well enough. After about an hour of his aggressive “salesmanship.” I finally reached my limit, confronted him, and said, “I am tired of listening to you. I want you to leave, right now. If you don’t, I will call your boss and complain about how you are harassing me.” Even with that aggressive response on my part, it still took me about ten minutes to get him out of our shop.

I have had religious believers, (most notably Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons) knock on my door and behave in a similar manner. Once, when I was home alone doing some work for my job, and rather bored, a Jehovah’s Witness (surprisingly, by herself and without a partner) knocked on my door. Grateful for any excuse to avoid doing the work I was supposed to be doing, I invited her in. Quite sensibly, she backed away quite hurriedly and left my home as fast as her legs could carry her.

Certainly, in the earliest days of Christianity and Islam, salesmanship was quite a bit easier. Christians showed up in places such as Britain and Ireland, said, “Hey our loving God is much better than your Druids; go with us.” Even though the Christians got a little carried a way at times, and murdered those who disagreed as vigorously as the Vikings or Druids did, quite often preaching alone did the job.

Same in Mexico and Peru. While Cortez and Pizarro were not exactly gentle folk, quite a few of the inhabitants were not that fond of sacrifices in temples where hearts were cut out of virgins and whatever, and sometimes the gentle preaching of priests was persuasion enough. My favorite early Christian, Roger Williams, was much loved by the Indians he befriended and studied. He didn’t really try to preach to them, but he probably did convince a few Indians that Christianity was a pretty cool religion.

The Trinity Church Evangelicals I do volunteer work are full of opinions about what kind of chain saw to use (Stihl), what kind of truck to drive (all over the map), and what kind of God to believe in (a very kind version of Christianity with room for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists (and probably just about any non-violent version of God you want to worship). However, they are extremely polite and patient about my (finally revealed) atheism, and most reluctant to challenge it.

I am also a bit bemused by a recent comment in my blog trying to convince me of the wonderfulness of Christianity, even after reading my scornful and sarcastic comments about it. I am fairly sure that Robyn, the person who posted, will not persist in arguing after such a hostile reply on my part. Salesmanship just isn’t what once was, though this may not yet be true on Iraq, Afghanistan, or North Korea.

One of these days, we will all be almost completely silent. (Technological developments such as Twitter reflect our increasing reticence. Humans will approach each other quietly and politely, offer a little food or a kiss, and then slink back into the trees.

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