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When I was 15 years old, I was sent to a summer program called Magabooks. It was a “Literature Ministries” program that lasted about two months, organized by the Michigan conference of Seventh-day Adventists. I found out about Magabooks from my stepdad, who told me to pack my bags and leave that same day. I was to move to suburban Michigan to live in an apartment with about six other kids and sell Bibles and other Christian books door-to-door.
More than 20 years later, I still remember the sales pitch I had to memorize during the first weeks of training: “My name is Jordan and I’m a student working my way through school. Instead of junk food and trinkets, we decided to offer something more healthy. Here, take a look.” And then, after saying “take a look,” I extended a Seventh-day Adventist cookbook called Healthy Choices.
I was taught proper eye contact, word choice, speaking pace, and body language. The nitpicks were tedious, and I hated them at first; then I mastered them well enough to love them. I had daily drills to memorize my pitch. After that came objection training, where we would roleplay potential objections that I would need to counter until the hypothetical conversation ended in a sale (and a soul closer to Christ).
My training was an education in well-intentioned manipulation. I was trained to start with a secular-sounding cookbook as an accessible entryway to the Christian books in my bag, like Angels Among Us, Steps to Christ, and the Bible. I was taught to balance joviality with confidence. What I remember most, though, was learning why it was so important to physically extend the book toward each potential buyer.
I had to practice the motion repeatedly. I had to grab the book from the top so that the cover faced the right way for the stranger when I extended my arm. The placement needed to be just above their waist level, which is where a person’s hands go naturally when something is offered to them. If their hands didn’t move, I was taught to hold the pose, arm extended, smile maintained, until the awkward pressure broke them. And usually it did. When someone is placed in an uncomfortable situation, they tend to act impulsively to ease the tension. In this case, that meant taking a cookbook in their hands. If they tried to hand it back, I would resist, and they would be my prisoner.
I was very good at selling books.
Today, I hate just about everything about the experience I imposed so effectively on others. I hate when salespeople respond with the trained responses that I once memorized. I hate “clipboard people” fundraising outside of grocery stores for a good cause, and the math they use to make an ongoing donation sound cheaper than it is. (“If $22 a month is too expensive, what about just 0.75 a day?”) I hate being held captive in conversations at professional events where people speak in networking jargon and obfuscate their needs and intentions. Just tell me what you want and respect my answer, I want to say. Just don’t manipulate me.
I’m sensitive to feeling manipulated even when the tactic has a social purpose. One of my biggest pet peeves in conversations is when someone uses bait to share a story that they want to tell, and pauses until I take it:
“I had a crazy thing happen to me once,” they might say, followed by a pause. They might just want to feel validated in my interest, but all I feel is that they put the onus on me to invite a story that they want to share. They put Healthy Choices in front of me and are waiting until I give in. (See also: “Can I ask you a question?” That’s for you to decide. If I don’t know what the question is, you can’t defer to my judgment on whether it’s appropriate.)