“What a great beard! Will you stop and have a chat with me?”

We’ve all heard that exclamation before. Walking along a Sydney street to your next appointment, you see a handful of people milling about wearing a charity t-shirt. As you approach, you play with something in your pocket, look past at the buildings ahead and try not to make eye contact. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see the young person staring you down, hoping you’ll return eye contact – however briefly – to engage in a conversation.

Except, I wouldn’t call it a conversation. It’s a sales pitch.

Others have already written about the financial issues associated with these “chuggers” (read: charity muggers) – like how much (or how little) the workers are paid, and whether they get bonuses or commissions for sign ups. The thing that bothers me most about these groups is their lack of sincerity – their communication.

I don’t know many who actually enjoy conversations with these backpackers and uni students on the streets. Those that do are usually more interested in having a heated argument about the larger issues the charity advocates or serves.

Why do we feel such a repulsion to these individuals and what they’re trying to do? Is it because we don’t want to be sold on something? Maybe we don’t appreciate the interruption from our daily lives or routines? I think it’s because they’re trying to come across as genuine –  interested in you and caring – but very clearly aren’t. Sincerity is almost impossible to fake.

It’s the smiles that don’t touch the eyes. The fake laughs when you tell them you’re on your way to a meeting and don’t want to stop for a chat. We all know it. I’m just saying things we all feel and think in our heads. Disgust as a response to a lack of honesty and sincerity.

The most damaging effect of this behaviour is the precedent it sets for conversations with strangers. If someone stops to talk to you on the street, what are the odds they’re one of these street fundraisers? I think quite high. What this means is that we’re immediately in a hostile and defensive mindset when anybody tries to talk to us out in public. We close ourselves off to the world.

As someone who likes to have random conversations with strangers when appropriate, I feel saddened by this thought.

And it’s not just the lack of sincerity, it’s the forcefulness of it. The chugger imposes their presence upon you, demanding some form of response. It’s like a pop-up on a website, but this time a person is behind it.

What are your experiences with chuggers? Do you appreciate being stopped for a “conversation”, do you hate it, or are there certain conditions that have to be in place for you to engage in a conversation? (E.g. you’ve got plenty of time on your hands or you’re in a good mood.)

For contrast, consider the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Watchtower magazine. The way they promote their magazine and religion (at least what I’ve seen in Sydney) is by erecting a small magazine rack in public and sitting quietly beside it. If someone approaches them and wants to talk, they’re welcoming, accommodating and friendly. They’re not stopping anyone or trying to sell anything though.

I don’t identify with a religion, but I can respect this method of promotion. It’s unimposing. If you’re curious about what they’re doing, then you, the potential “client” can go and approach them. The customer wants to buy a product or service. They don’t want to be sold a product or service. The perceived choice is with the consumer.

The moral of the story? Coming across as demanding and insincere is not likely to grow a positive relationship. Listen up, chuggers.

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