Who I Am Is No One Else’s Business

June 2, 2009 | By | 27 Replies More

As this just happened, I thought I’d come right home and write about it.  I just had one of those customer service incidents that sends me over the moon.

I walked into a store to find something.  I was in a frame of mind to buy.  I found the something and asked the sales person “How much is that?”  Back at her desk, she sat down, I sat down, and I expected her to punch up the price on her computer and tell me.


Image by Lost Albatross at Flickr (creative commons)

Instead:  “What’s you name?”

“Private individual,” I replied, a bit nonplussed.

“I need a name for the quote,” she said.

“You have to have it?”


“Have a nice day.”

And I walked out.

Now, this was perhaps petty of me.  What, after all, is the big deal?  She needed to punch a name into her computer to open the dialogue box to ask for the price.


This is a persistent and infuriating condition in our present society that causes me no end of irritation because so few people think it is a problem that I end up looking like a weirdo because I choose not to hand out private information for free.

It has crept up on us.  Decades ago, when chain stores began compiling mailing lists by which they could send updates and sale notices to their client base.  Then they discovered they could sell those lists to other concerns for marketing.  Now we have a plague of telemarketers, junk mail, spam, and cold calls and a new social category with which to look askance at people who would prefer not to play.  Like me.

In itself, it is an innocent enough thing.  But it is offensive, and what offends me the most is my fellow citizens failing to see how it is offensive and how it on a deep level adds to our current crisis.

Look:  if telemarketing didn’t work, no one would do it.  A certain percentage of those unwanted calls actually hook somebody into buying something.  Direct mail campaigns have an expected positive return rate of two percent. That is considered normal response and constitutes grounds to continue the practice.  Economies of scale work that way.  So if only two to five percent of the public respond favorably to the intrusions of these uninvited pests, they have reason to persist.

I think it might be fair to say that people with money and education don’t respond  as readily as poorer, less educated folks who are always on the lookout for bargains—and often find bargains they don’t understand and probably end up costing them too much, like sub prime mortgages.

We are too free with our personal information.  Maybe you or you or you find nothing wrong with always giving out your phone number or your zip code or even your name and address when asked, in Pavlovian response to the ringing bell behind the counter, but what has happened is that we have made available a vast pool of data that makes it easy to be imposed upon and that has aided and abetted a consumer culture that has gotten out of hand.

And made those of us who choose not to participate in this look like some form of misanthropic libertarian goofballs.

How hard is this?  If I choose to buy from someone, then I have agreed to have a relationship, however tenuous, with them.  Unless I pay cash, they are entitled to know with whom they are dealing.  But if I’m not buying, they have no right to know who I am.  And I can’t know if I’m going to buy if I don’t know how much the object in question is.  Trying to establish the buying relationship in advance of MY decision to buy is…rude.

I have walked out of many stores when confronted with a request for personal information.  I’ve had a few shouting matches with managers over it.  In some instances, the unfortunate salesperson is as much a victim, because some software programs these days have as a necessary prerequisite for accessing the system the entry of all this data.  The corporation won’t even let the employee make the call whether it’s worth irritating someone over collecting all this information.

Concerns and worries over Big Brother have a certain validity, but it is largely unremarked that the foundation of such a system will not be imposed on us—rather we will hand the powers that be what they ask for because we can’t muster up enough sense of ourselves to say, consistently, “None of your damn business!”

There.  I feel better.  I needed to get that out.  This rant has been brought to you by  Consumer Culture LTD.


Tags: , , ,

Category: American Culture, Communication, Community, Consumerism, Education, ignorance, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (27)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erika Price says:

    Mark: Amen, amen amen. This demand for personal details I think comes partly from a corporate data-mining greed, but also out of a misplaced notion that customers want to feel a relationship with their companies. So many businesses, from too-cutesy family restaurants to gift card and clothing retailers attempt to forge some phoney friendship with their customers using freebies attached to name, address and email.

    Most people don't want sales staff who follow them around the store, sing and chit-chat mindlessly. Or maybe they do? When I worked at an (evil, hellish) Old Navy in high school, I was told research found that "over ninety percent" of customers want an attentive and approaching sales staff. Maybe this is an introvert/extrovert thing, but I want to be left the hell alone when I'm in the dressing room, thank you, please stop asking if I need anything.

    Then there are companies who have a misplaced sense of authority. I hate the mistrust that is evident in Best Buy's policy of checking the receipts of all exiting customers. To my knowledge, you never have to give them this information. I usually try to walk by stoically, but it sure feels awkward.

    My only point other than chirping in tune with your complaints is to beg mercy for the hapless employees at these establishments. Retail employees receive strict, badgering management demands that they show cheer, extract facts from customers, and peddle add-ons constantly. At the aforementioned Old Navy, employees were expected to sign up one customer per hour for the company's credit card. This included sales floor employees, who had to badger people who had not even decided to make a purchase at all yet! When I worked at Hallmark, I had to ask customers to sign up for reward cards, ornament clubs (in June!) and ask for donations to send Christmas and birthday cards to troops in Iraq. And everybody hated it. So try, please, to reject corporate nonsense in a manner both firm and polite.

    I called Netgear this weekend for assitance in a wireless router that had gone south. The support staff asked for my SSID and network key. Miffed, I told him that the request seemed improper- I was setting up the network, he was in India, he could not help. I'm sure I seemed like a misanthropic libertarian goofball. But on these matters, I kinda am one.

    Kudos for reinforcing the correct use of "nonplussed", too, though I think the tide is going to turn on it irrevocably.

  2. Mindy Carney says:

    Hear, hear, Mark and Erika. Such an invasion, and always seemingly "absolutely necessary." I was buying clothing for my daughters not long ago and they asked for my phone number. I was, unfortunately, just distracted enough telling said daughters that no, they could not have any of the myriad pieces of junk next to the counter that I absentmindedly told her. I now receive bi-weekly phone calls from "Jessica at Justice!" who, with great cheer and enthusiasm tells me what wonderful sales are going on at the store. Since Jessica is NOT my BFF, I am annoyed to no end at her insinuation that I actually wanted to receive this call. A recorded call, of course, because that's how BFFs communicate.

    I learned my lesson. I will pay attention next time. I do have a good friend who just makes up names when those situations arise. That, I have to say, is kind of fun.

  3. I was fuming after having written the above post and recalled another incident that infuriated me even more, but I'm not entirely sure how to fit it in to my overall theme. We went carshopping one day and stumbled on a Nissan Altima that had been repossessed. Beautiful car, 2000 miles, just arrived on the lot. We test drove it, fell in like with it, and were ready to talk turkey.

    Then something odd happened. I asked "How much?" and the salesman blithely sat us down and asked how much we made. I kind of blinked and said "That's none of your business. How much is the car?"

    "Well, I just want to see what kind of a deal we can make you," he said. "For that, I need to know—"

    "Just give us a price."

    He never did. We never found out how much they expected to get for that car. He intended to tailor our payments according to our income level, but this is so wrong in so many ways, it infuriated. He would never just say how much the damn car was.

    We didn't get the car. I suspect now that they just hadn't done all the due diligence on it and didn't know what to charge for it and in fact were probably eager to get it off the lot for some reason. But that was just not the way to do it. He was not going to give us a straight answer and we both ended up pissed off.

    I hate that on car lots. They should put the price on the vehicles on the lot, and by law they do on new vehicles, but not, usually, on used cars. You have to get a salesman just to find out the most basic detail. I used to sell retail, and I was, frankly, good at it. But I hated it. I prefer walking in, looking around, checking the prices, and if I decide to buy AND ONLY THEN do I want a salesperson.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Radio Shack has cheerfully accepted and entered "refused" for my phone number and other identifying information since the mid 1980's.

    Also, one can use a fake name or number. Heinlein advocated answering all computer feeding requests with gusto. But never give quite the same information twice.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    The flip side to this issue is annoying privacy laws, such as HIPAA. The last time I was in the emergency room with my mother, I had to answer the same (expletive) questions many times from my groggy and her unreliable memories. Every detail about her medical history is in their computers already. But they are not allowed to look it up using the barcode on her bracelet.

  6. Geis says:

    I recall trying to buy some discount shoes at an outdoor festival. When I took my shoes up to check out, they asked if it was cash or charge and I said cash. They asked my name and I said that I was paying cash. This flustered the clerk who said they needed my name. I said that if I was paying cash, there was no need for my name. She had to get her manager, who sort of insisted. "Are you going to refuse to take my money and sell me these shoes if I don't give you my name?" The manager wouldn't say yes or no but still tried to get me to give him a name so that he could fill in the box on the receipt. I game him "John Smith" and asked if I needed to spell it for him. He accepted the obviously false name.

    I had an interesting argument with a Radio Shack employee a number of years back. I went in and bought something and when he asked for my phone number, I responded that I wasn't going to give it to him because I didn't want them looking up my number and sending me junk mail. He said "It's not junk mail." "Yes, it's junk." "No, it's not." "Look. If it's in my mailbox and I didn't specifically ask for it to be there, it's junk."

  7. BJNebraska says:

    Agreed! My wife and I were shopping a few months ago (forget where). The clerk asked if she could get a telephone number for me. My wife was surprised to learn that "no" was a perfectly acceptable response. She's starting to give me those looks like I'm a crazy libertarian…. wait, I actually am an anarchist so I guess that's already pretty far out there. 🙂

    The other day we were out again, and dismayed to find out that if the answer to the telephone number question is "no", some places are starting to follow up with asking for an address, zip code, etc… After answering "no" to several of these, I was forced to ask the clerk "Can I just give you money, and then you give me the widget?"

    This data-mining is everywhere, once you really start to see it. How about the now-ubiquitous "surveys" that automatically print at the bottom of every receipt? Loyalty-rewards cards (Hallmark, as mentioned above, grocery stores, etc..)? Facebook? The less private information I share with the world, the more the world looks as me as if I'm the weird one. I never will figure it out..

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I usually take reasonable precautions to safeguard my privacy. For example, Niklaus Pfirsig is not my real name, but a handle I've used for many years.

    I have always taken care to avoid association of this handle with my real name and in spite of this, I recently received some junk mail to my home address for "Niklaus Pfirsig".

    In the information age, personal date is a valuable commodity, and many fail to understand this. But the disturbing thing about privacy in the internet age is the misuse and abusive use of data mining.

    Even when used for legitimate purposes, data mining can result in misleading results. Several years ago, the state governments began sharing data. I went to renew my driver's license and was told that the renewal had been denied by the dept of safety in a different state, a state I've never visited. I was instructed to contact the safety dept in the other state to clear this up.

    My real name is not a very common name, but know of three other people with the same name within a 40 mile radius of my home. The guy in the other state, however, was born on the same day as me. And even worse, his license had been revoked for habitual dui and they wanted me to apper in court, thinkg I was him.

    Finally I found someone who was willing to compare the physical descriptions between the licenses and after finding a difference in height of almost a foot, the problem was cleared up.

  9. Tim Hogan says:

    When I get those cards with the prepaid mail I tape them to a brick and return mail it.

    I have given the name of the current President many times and the White House comment line for my number. By the way the White House is at 1600 Pennsylvania, NW
    Washington, DC.

    Now, there's a Democrat there in the WH so find Kit Bond's address and phone number and give those to the chipper little sales people! But, do it fast, Bond's quitting soon!

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    I rented a car at Enterprise in Charlotte, North Carolina last weekend. Walking out to the lot, the salesguy started disparaging the $19.99 subcompact that I had reserved. "It's only a Kia . . . not much of a car. Let's move you up into a nicer driving machine."

    That really peeves me . . . they should stand behind the products they offer, and they often don't. In fact, when you order a sub-compact, they often don't actually have one on the lot and after trying to bump you up to the $30 car (which I refuse), they then just give you the upgraded car for the cost of the sub-compact.

    But more on topic, the Enterprise salesguy (this was while walking out to get my car) started asking me where I was from, how was my flight, what do I plan to be doing in NC. He's trying to act like my good buddy, and I simply want to rent my car. He might be a nice fellow, but I came here to rent a car.

    All of his nosy question actually have a commercial purpose. He's trying to get chit chat going so that he can make the insurance sale, which will almost double the price of the car. When he asked what my car insurance deductible was, I should have said that it was irrelevant simply reminded him that I had insurance with a reputable insurer. I did turn down his offer of insurance several times, but he was determined. "Are you sure? With our insurance, we'll take care of everything. We'll submit the claims forms. You won't be out your deductible."

    I told him to tell his boss that he did a great job trying to sell the insurance, but let's go get the car and be done with it.

  11. I'm not giving says:

    first off, Erich, what's with "Name (required)" just to write this comment, huh?

    Second, I was at a nice hotel in california and walked into the dining room for dinner, without a reservation. the place was pretty empty.

    me: table for two please.
    lady: are you staying here at the hotel?
    me: we just want dinner and will not be charging it to our room.
    lady: I will need your room number.
    me: sorry about that ma'am.
    lady: may i have your name?
    me: [gave her my first name]
    lady: what is your last name?
    me: how many more questions do i have to answer before you will seat us?
    lady: just your full name
    me: goodbye

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I agree with Mindy on this. Just give us a tag with which we can identify you. Keep using the same tag. That allows us to know that the same human being is making the comments with that tag. We don't insist on knowing your real identity. There are many good reasons that some people can't reveal their identities on sites that deal with controversial issues.

      On the other hand, I've encouraged the authors to use their real names to the extent it won't jeopardize their careers. I'm proud that more than half of our authors use their real names.

  12. None says:

    did y'all notice that to leave a comment here it says:

    "Name (required)"

  13. Mindy Carney says:

    The required name on a blog like this is so that we can respond to a particular comment by name. The comment threads often become extended conversations, and I might want to address Erika's point specifically, or None's point, as it were, and without names of some kind, we can't do that. Of course pretend names are fine, silly names are fine, code names are fine. Be whomever you want to be, just remember who you are if you want to participate in real conversation, because that's what DI is all about.

  14. Dan Klarmann says:

    It helps that some of our real names look fake. Erich? Klarmann?

    I use "Custer" at restaurants to avoid having to spell my real name. I also answer to "Mr. Jackson" for reasons known to those who know me.

    In public schools, I learned to answer to "Clayman", "Clairmin" and even "Kleemar". Gym teachers had a way with names.

  15. The mangling of names is one of those "Can you top this" games.

    My name? Common mangles are: Tiederman, Teideman, Tiedmann, Tieman. Then we enter the realm of the creative: Tuckerman, Tiezdermann, Dietermann, Teffleman, Tiedlemann.

    Most common mispronunciation is to give it the long "I" on the first syllable. Instead of TEE-da-man it comes out TYE-de-man. That's almost acceptable, because it looks that way in anglo-saxon. But it's German, so the vowel pronounced is the second one. What I hate is after you correct someone the fifth time and they still don't get it.

    In restaurants, waiting, they ask for a name, I say Mark. Saves wear all around.

  16. Dan Klarmann says:

    Now This post: "Please Don't Ask" is a great take on modern identity procedures.

    Well, it is mostly an aside. But what a wonderful read!

  17. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    I know someone that found the number for the phone in the breakroom at the local police station and would give that number out when asked for a phone number. A similar ploy is to use fictional characters from novels, or obscure historical figures. (e.g. Robinette Broadhead, Jubal Harshaw, Richard Saunders, Vlad Tepes, Freddy Busara and Roy Bean)

  18. Erika Price says:

    Last name manglings are bad, but nothing steams my broccoli like a first name misspelling. I am sure Erich is also a proud member in the "My name is not Eric(a) or Erick(a)" club.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I do carry around a pocket-full of H's at all times. There's a longer story to it all. I was born "Richard" and Erich is a spelling that retains the name I used until I was 18: "Rich."

  19. (required) says:

    I think I can top all the name mangling stories because someone actually mangled my last name. Now, I know I shouldn't give out personal information on the web, but I'll let you in on a secret. My last name is Jones. I called some place once and I was flabbergasted when they asked my how to spell it. Even if you work in a call center on the other side of the planet, half a percent of Americans are named Jones (and probably another 5% who lie about their name choose Jones).. is it really possible that a person who speaks fluent, accentless English could not be familiar with the name Jones?

  20. Tim Hogan says:

    I just left a medical office, as I entered the receptionist asked for my Social Security Number.

    I asked her if I were "applying for credit, or was there a law which required me to give you my SSN?

    "No, it's policy."

    "Well, I have a policy of getting the name, address, telephone number and SSN of anyone who requests my information, so we're on equal terms," I replied. "Or I may need to sue you, your employer or anyone else who misuses my confidential financial information, so may I have your name, address, date of birth, SSN, and phone number?"

    "Sir, you don't have to be difficult," she said. "I'm only asking you the same questions everybody else routinely gives answers to for our offices."

    "That's fine, and all I'm asking you is the routine questions which I ask of every person who asks me for confidential financial information, before I give out any such information so we're on an equal footing."


    "Now do you REALLY need my SSN?"


    "Thank you, here's my insurance card."

    My wife hates when I do this, so I try not to do it when she's around but, if I have to…

    Every day we give up more and more of our privacy and do so without thinking. All I want is to be generally left alone except when I allow or want someone to be in communication. The current corporate/government milieu is such that there are more and more demands for information such that it is inevitable that some part of our most private, confidential information is becoming more and more available where we may be used, abused or refused based upon factors of which we are wholly unaware.

    So, I'm Tim Hogan. If you want more give me the same information (or more)!

  21. Just a comment to those folks who use fake names and so forth in these instances. I can understand that, I do, because you want to protect your privacy and still do business—but it's the least direct way to break this system down. A categorical refusal to play would, in the course of a month, make it stop. It's not so much ME that I'm trying to protect, as the IDEA of privacy. I don't want to give them false information when they ask, I want them to STOP ASKING.

    Just sayin', y'know?

  22. Alison says:

    I think I've discovered the absolute only thing good about self-serve checkout after reading this thread. (I don't care if it's 11PM and there's only one cashier – I will wait in that line until I get a discount for checking my own purchases!)

    I put myself and my husband on do not call and do not mail lists, and it has helped a great deal with the daily invasions of privacy at home. I never gave much thought to the use of my information when I made purchases, though. Most of the time, since I was purchasing with a credit or debit card, the sellers already had an in on my personal info. So far, I haven't been asked for anything under other circumstances, but now I'll be paying more attention.

  23. Mindy Carney says:

    Ahhh, good point, Mark. Hadn't thought of that, but that makes sense. They ask because they use the information to inundate us with junk mail, unsolicited phone calls and information ad nauseum. Would be nice to lay that to rest once and for all!

  24. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Tim, If I recollect correctly, a persons SSN is only for official Social Security Administration use. No one can require your SSN for any business transaction not related to official SSA business.

  25. This sure is interesting food for thought. Never gave it a second of my time to even contemplate, but those calls selling you double glazing, kitchens, insurance, advertising, etc. at any given time of the day and night, indeed are most irritating.

Leave a Reply