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Ethnic targeting and my landline

KIM ROSEN/The Globe and Mail

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At our house we still answer the telephone without looking to see who is calling – an old habit.

At least twice a day it's a call starting with "As-Salaam Alaikum," and if I am the one who picked up they add "Sister" to the greeting.

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After delivering their "peace be with you" opening in Arabic, the callers most often seek to sell their ability to teach the Koran to my children. Runner-up callers include duct-cleaning companies, math tutors and Bell promoters.

Sometimes they are located in Toronto, but more often in Islamabad. I'm not sure how they will clean ducts in Toronto from Pakistan, but we rarely get that far in the conversation.

I believe they have targeted my phone because they have found a name that is Muslim-sounding, and they are betting on my loyalty and trust of another Muslim. It does not seem to matter that we have registered our phone number with the CRTC "no call" list. The calls keep coming.

I know we could discontinue our landline, or delist our number, or not answer the phone when we don't recognize the number – tactics others have employed. But we are unfortunately conditioned to expect an interesting interruption when the phone rings, probably imprinted on us during the 1980s.

So instead, we try to stop the calls at their source. We have accepted the challenge of discouraging these calls as a personal test. We haven't succeeded yet, but we haven't given up completely either.

When our children come to visit, they also try their hand, confidently picking up the phone with a smile, knowing that they have the winning strategy and that their parents are just weak. Needless to say, they also fail.

Here is what we have tried:

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We have had the religious talk with the callers. I explain that peddling a religion over the phone, the same way you might sell shampoo or any other product, seems undignified; possibly even sinful or blasphemous.

A faith should appeal on its own merits, I tell them, and not need a crass sell over the phone. Although my callers perhaps have not considered this angle before taking their present job, I haven't yet converted anyone to this view.

We have tried saving them from themselves by explaining that they are breaking the law. We ask them if they have consulted the "no call list" and then tell them it is against the law to be phoning us. A few callers actually apologize and hang up, but most laugh.

I have tried urging them to seek better employment. Surely there is a better way to make a living; a career counsellor might help.

"Have you thought about the skilled trades or going to university?" I suggest helpfully.

We play Colombo, the naive investigator: "I can't be your sister, I don't have a brother. You have the wrong number."

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I answer "Hello" to their "As-Salaam Alaikum," and we do this back and forth several times. I then ask why they don't say "hello" also. They explain that I have a Muslim name. I am shocked.

When we are tired, we fall back on the humble request: "Please, please, take us off your list. We are not interested."

That only works if we don't wait for a response and immediately hang up. Any discussion only gives them false hope, and the opportunity to keep talking.

When we are disturbed, we are argumentative. This is where the real competition is, and the mutual crossing of lines into nastiness.

We ask them to speak English, believing somehow that we will have an advantage and that they may hang up in frustration.

We quiz them and try to trap them, and when we ask for their telephone number, they often recite ours. They can be rude; they curse and call back repeatedly. By the end, we are both recipients of bad behaviour.

Not all is failure. We had some limited success eventually with the As-Salaam Alaikum Bell promoters.

At first we dealt with customer service, who promised it would stop in a matter of weeks. When we had exhausted them, and their empty promises, I dropped by at a Bell kiosk and requested guidance on stopping the calls. The staff person confessed that it was happening to him as well – he was also at a loss!

Finally, I wrote to the head honchos of the company and got a letter in response. The calls stopped coming, and this lasted for a while. But recently it has started up again. There must be a new president in marketing who thinks it is a great idea to match salespeople to potential customers based on their perceived ethnicity and religion. I guess this is their idea of globalization.

We recognize that telephone victory may not happen in our lifetime. I know that as you are reading this you are thinking that you would never stand for it. You would put a stop to it. You would know exactly what to do and say.

Well if it works, be sure to pass it on, I say with a smirk.

Susan Qadeer lives in Toronto.

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