On being ... a thing

 By Ingrid Sapona

I have a favourite household broom – well, actually, it’s a bench brush. (For those unfamiliar with different types of brooms, it’s the kind that’s often is sold along with a small dust pan.) Growing up, we had a couple of these brushes around the house. Dad kept one on the boat and so when I inherited the boat, I inherited the brush. 

It’s made of horse hair and has a wooden handle that’s got a comfortable, contoured grip. The horse hair bristles are exceptionally good at sweeping fine particles of dust and stuff. In a word, the brush is exquisite. Because these brushes were unlike others we had – or really any others that I had seen – I once asked Mom where they came from. Her answer surprised me. “Oh, I bought them from a Fuller Brush man,” she said. 

I don’t know if I thought the Fuller Brush man was a Hollywood-created character or something, but I pressed her for details. “You mean, you bought it from someone who came to the door?” I asked. “Oh yes – and the Electrolux too,” she said, adding, “they were good quality and we could pay for them in instalments.” The Electrolux vacuum cleaner was another favourite – a workhorse we had for 50+ years. 

The reason I’ve been thinking about the Fuller Brush man isn’t because of the novelty of door-to-door sales. It’s because I’ve had a number of conversations with folks who tell me they don’t answer the door unless the person contacts them in advance to say they’re coming. Most of these people also tell me they never answer the phone if they don’t know who’s calling. 

When someone tells me they don’t ever answer the door, I always ask why. The response I typically get is a shrug and the affirmation: “I just don’t.” I then follow up by asking if they’re afraid to answer. No one has ever admitted they are. Still struggling to understand, I usually then ask if they at least look to see who it might be. Of course, in asking this, I’m kind of testing whether they’re afraid of what they might see – or afraid that they might be seen. More often than not they say they won’t even look to see who it is. 

So then I circle back with, “Well what if it’s your neighbor?” To that I often hear, “Well, if it’s my neighbor… I guess then I’d answer.” “But how would you know if it’s your neighbor if you won’t even look?” I ask. As you can imagine, at this point in the conversation heels are being dug in. “Well, if it’s my neighbor, they should call before coming over!” is a common retort. “But what if they don’t have your number? Or what if you don’t recognize their number – you won’t answer.” “Well, er… um…,” often follows. 

The phenomenon of not answering the phone has been around a long time – at least as far back as caller ID, which debuted in the 1990s.  Funny enough, when caller ID came out there was a hubbub about the privacy rights of the CALLER! Obviously sometime in the last 30 years the mood has shifted to the rights of the receiver to know who’s calling. The proliferation of telephone solicitations and scams do provide some justification for choosing to not answer one’s phone. But why not just answer and hanging up if you don’t know the caller or have no need for what the caller is saying? I think answering your cell phone makes especially good sense because once you’ve established that you don’t want to hear from that caller, you can then permanently block the number. How many times have you been chatting with someone and their phone rings and the conversation stops while they look to see if they know who’s calling. At that point your conversation has already been interrupted and if they refuse to answer because they don’t know who’s calling, the interruption continues until the ringing stops. 

I truly am puzzled by this business of not answering one’s door or one’s phone. Was answering the door to strangers – even those who might try to sell you a brush, or vacuum cleaner, or set of encyclopedias – a sign of a more innocent time? Perhaps… Or maybe it’s that today people feel empowered by not answering. Maybe it’s a control thing: play by my rules – phone or text before knocking – or I won’t respond. Or maybe people feel they have no time for what they assume will be a trivial or annoying interruption. But what if it isn’t an annoyance? What if it’s a friendly face stopping to say hello or to bring good news? Or what if it’s a neighbor in need? 

I really don’t know what’s behind this attitude about not answering doors and phones but I do know that it seems to have become “a thing”. As it happens, Fuller Brush switched to on-line sales in the 1990s – perhaps they anticipated peoples’ refusal to respond to knocks and rings. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona 


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