The Bartleby Comeback

Posted on June 03, 2009 by Steve

"I would prefer not to say."

This is the reply I've been giving since September to cashiers who ask for my phone number or ZIP code. I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier; I used to uncomfortably give fake information or, more uncomfortably, answer honestly. My new response is far superior:
  • It is honest. Giving false information (whether it is obvious or not) repays rudeness with mendacity. Better to obtain the moral high ground, so the guilt adheres to the nosy party.
  • It is easy. Making grand statements about privacy to a POS lackey is awkward and pointless.
  • It is direct and final. Asking why a cashier needs your personal information, or expressing fears that it will be misused, invites canned promises and excuses, which in turn require you to either cave or implicitly judge the promises as lies, a waste of time either way.
If that's not enough, it also seems to be the fastest way to get through the transaction Thanks to Melville for the inspiration.
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Posted by Tony | June 03, 2009 | 14:29:36

I don't mind giving out the zip code, for some reason. If I'm in a store I actually like (say, Sur La Table or some place like that), I figure that just giving out the zip code will retain effective anonymity while presumably help the company decide to open a new store closer to my house. A win-win, or at least a no-lose, no-lose, the way I see it.

My answer to a request for anything else, on the other hand, is exactly the same as yours.

Posted by Dave | June 03, 2009 | 15:43:08

If they ask for my phone number I either say "Thanks, but I'm straight" or "Thanks, but I'm married". Both have worked well in past.

Posted by RWH | June 05, 2009 | 21:51:15

Mendacity requires intent to deceive, so I think your first point is just false - if I give my zip as 00000, say, there's no lie involved - everybody knows that's not a real zip code and I just mean that I don't want to give it out, while still giving the clerk something to pacify the snoopy software.

And for that matter, as I think we've discussed before, I don't agree that even an actual lie cedes any moral high ground. As far as I'm concerned, countering an illegitimate question with non-factual data leaves me pure as snow. And corporate nosiness is a long haul from legitimate.

I'm not too sure about your third point either - it's direct enough, but surely it leaves you open to "Why not?", or some kind of attempt to coax you into giving up the info. My preferred response of "I don't have a phone/fixed address/last name" is much finaller, and just as direct.

And why not go for the trifecta: re: bullet point 2, I'm not sure that making petit statements about privacy - as which surely your response qualifies - to corporate wage slaves is any less pointless. Maybe a little less awkward, but it carries a bit of stiffness and over-formality to my ear, and seems marginally more likely than my alternative to grate on the nerves of the checker, who, after all, probably hates asking as much as you hate being asked. That last is likely me just being over-sensitive, though.

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