Saying no to the Appleman

Today I was overhearing an interesting conversation between my father and a door-to-door salesperson. It was interesting to witness the inability of my father to say no, and the tactics that the salesperson used. Nobody knew that I was listening.

My father tried to tell that salesperson no perhaps 5 times. My father was always trying to fish for arguments to justify the no. The salesperson seemed to be listening carefully, making sounds that indicate acknowledgment and understanding. But then when he began to speak again, he ignored the argument and tried to give reasons why buying apples is good. Or he would seem to offer something special to my father by reducing the minimum order quantity.

As an argument, my father said something along the lines of there being many people in the household that all need to be financially supported, and that therefore buying these overpriced apples is not a good choice. Though he did not mention the apples being overpriced. And the salesperson without a moment’s hesitation interjected that if there are so many people, then it would be better to buy 40kg instead of 20. And he managed to say it in a joking tone, making it not seem offensive.

(So a joking tone of voice can be used to put options on the table that would be socially inappropriate otherwise, without taking a reputation hit. Interesting.)

And for offering something special he used a cute little psychological trick. Ideally, you would like to sell as much as possible. Having a minimum buy quantity is good to check the reaction of the potential buyer. If it is only a bit above what he would like to spend you might be able to talk him into buying more than he otherwise would. If he does not seem like he is going to take the offer you can just lower the minimum buy quantity. And then it seems like the seller is doing you a favor. But of course, selling anything is better than nothing. And the seller did never offer to lower the price.

He only talked about that there is some other place my father probably never heard of, where the apples cost 5$, and that therefore his offer of 4$ per 1kg of apples must be good.

The seller started with 30kg being the minimum order quantity the first time he showed up. Each time after that my father said no I think. And each time the seller lowered the minimum order quantity. From 30 to 24 to 20. And this time he lowered it again to 15, and then finally to 10kg. That is still 40$ of apples. I guess that this is still profitable for the seller (taking into account travel time and expenses). But it seems to scratch the bottom. It all of course depends on how many other buyers there are, and how far they are apart. I am in the countryside right now, and not in a big city.

It might even be worth taking a small loss for the seller, not breaking the buyer’s streak of buying. I would expect that each time you buy the same thing from the same seller, it gets harder and harder to not buy again as a habit forms. Perhaps the buyer just had a bad day and next time he would buy again. “You want to find customers and hold them” is advice I have heard multiple times, though I don’t remember where I have heard it.

How not to say no

I don’t think my father has learned how to say no yet. He was always trying to justify his no. But of course, justifying your no only makes sense if the other person tries to find the truth of whether the no is the best thing for you. And the salesperson is already set very hard on that selling apples is what is good. It is sort of the Principal-Agent problem, in terms of wanting the salesperson (agent) to be an interlocutor to you (the Principal) that helps you figure out the right decision.

Giving a justification is only an invitation for it to be attacked in a situation like this. Of course, this varies from salesperson to salesperson. If you talk to somebody in a shop they will often be much less aggressive in this regard. Perhaps because not 100% of their income is determined by how much you sell (I don’t know if this is true here but in general it probably matters a lot more to door-to-door salespeople, how much you sell). It also seems worse for a shop to have a reputation for being pushy. You can then just go to another shop. But you don’t decide directly if the door-to-door salesperson rings your bell.

Also, my father was not sounding very confident when saying no. Maybe humans don’t like to say no by default, because they want to avoid any possible negative social consequences. And giving a strong no with no justification would have stronger consequences. But of course, there are no social consequences when saying no to a salesperson.

Especially not, if you say no in polite but still strong, which is totally possible and the way you should do it by default I think. I did manage to turn away Jehovah’s Witnesses in less than one minute, while still being polite. If you turn people away in a polite way, you also don’t feel bad afterward, which could happen otherwise.


The problem of saying no does not only appear in social interactions. Part of being conscientious is saying no many times a day, to all of the things that you should not do when thinking about it seriously for at least 10 seconds.

Though this is only part of the problem. Thinking seriously for 10 seconds in the first place is a lot harder.