It might not be the speech-act you thought it was

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My credit-card company has developed a new scheme for trying to trick me with speech-acts. It's likely that you've heard roughly this pitch before, especially if you are lucky enough to work at home sometimes and trusting enough to answer the phone before ring #3.

The scheme works like this: After lots of polite forms and attempts at charm, the telemarketer says something like, "I just need you to confirm your address for me so that I can send you a free gift certificate in the mail and enroll you in special program P. Special program P has many virtues [… tedious list of supicious-sounding virtues elided …]. Can I get you to confirm your address for me, Mr Potts?"

This is designed to be distracting. You think, "Could my credit-card company have my address wrong? If so, the consequences could be dire. Missed bills. Identify theft. What's more, I can eliminate the risk by just checking quickly with this person. So I might as well verify this information …"

At this point, costly program P is likely to have drifted from your thoughts.

That is the insidious part. The situation comes to this: The speech-act of confirming your mailing address (just a well-placed, "Yes, that's right") enrolls you in a costly program. (Free for the first month. Always costly after that, and hard to notice on your bill.)

This is well outside normal linguistic experience. It would be no surprise if saying, "Yes, I want to enroll in P" constituted the act of enrolling in P. That is the sort of thing we do all the time on the phone — when setting up electric service, subscribing to magazines, and so forth — so we're used to it. My credit-card company's pitch avoids this direct interaction. Instead, it quietly establishes an unexpected connection between verifying some important information and agreeing to enroll in a costly program. The set-up is not particularly clever. It works only by playing on people's fears about what would happen if their credit-card company had an incorrect address for them.

So, when the telemarketers call, be careful what you acknowledge to be true. It might not be the speech-act you thought it was.


  1. Lugubert said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

    When those leeches ask me "Am I speaking to Lugubert Jedermann", I answer "That's me", so there will be no "yes" to cut and paste into an acknowledgement.

  2. John Cowan said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

    After "enroll you in special program P", I say "NO NO NO NO" and hang up.

  3. R N B said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

    I think the first commenter has missed the subtlety of the approach. The set-up is particularly clever. But is it legal, let alone ethical?

  4. gcruse said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

    I suspect that's how DiscoverCard got me into their credit insurance program. After noticing that charge on my bill the first time it came up, I called them and raised cain. They dropped it and credited my account.

  5. Bob Lieblich said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

    I've been using the same two credit cards for a couple of decades, and if either pulled a stunt like that on me they'd find themselves receiving some cut-up cards in the mail once I figured out what was going on and got them to confirm they'd suckered me into a program I didn't need and didn't want to pay for.

    Actually, as soon as I'm told by anyone on the phone that I've won a "free gift," I interrupt and ask them if they have my correct address so they can send it to me right away. The minute they point out the conditions — and of course there are always conditions; who gives things away in phone calls to strangers? — I tell them that that isn't a "free" gift — indeed, isn't a gift at all — and ask them why they're lying to me.

    The call usually ends very soon afterwards.

  6. Chris Potts said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

    The above reactions help make it clear why the credit card companies are resorting to these tactics. They're trying to make these calls sound like official business to get past outright rejectors like Lugubert and John Cowan. gcruse's experience suggests that they are also expecting a certain amount of backlash.

    I recommend Larry Solan and Peter Tiersma's Speaking of Crime, which has lots of case studies concerning (indirect) speech acts and their legal ramifications.

  7. dr pepper said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

    I always say that i am willing to look at some materials if they'll send them but i will not sign up for anything on the basis of a phone call. That's when they say they can't send anything without signing me up, to which i reply "that sounds like a scam" and hang up.

  8. DonBoy said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

    I also like the use of "need" in the reported phone call.

  9. Craig Russell said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

    I wonder if the marketing geniuses that thought this one up calculated the cost of the inevitable lawsuit against the extra profits they will make for as long as they can get away with this. I can't imagine that they don't realize that they'll get in trouble once people realize what's going on here.

    They've probably already got their public (non)apology written. ("We are sorry if anyone misinterpreted the offer of our new BullshitRewards program. It was never our intention to mislead anyone…")

  10. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

    I think one difficulty of trying to use litigation to curb this outrageous conduct is that any individual plaintiff's money damages will probably be less than the cost (and trouble) of going to law, and generally speaking US courts don't award costs of suit to successful plaintiffs. The remedy, I think, will have to be either some new regulation or law (with the appropriate enforcement mechanism) or a class action, which is not an easy thing to organize, or to prevail in.

  11. Ewan said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 1:25 am

    I have only ever experienced this behaviour from rogue telemarketers offering obviously fake wares. Are sure this was really your credit card company?

  12. John Mark Ockerbloom said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    Lawsuits? What makes you think you'll be allowed to file a lawsuit? If your credit card is with a large bank, they've probably put an "arbitration" clause buried in the card agreement where they say you have no right to sue. And you didn't even have to say "yes" to that.

  13. mgh said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    In what was perhaps v1.0 of the reported tactic, I got a call from my credit card company last year in which the caller read me my phone number and asked if it was correct. I replied, "Well, you're talking to me, aren't you?"

  14. Stephen Jones said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 6:17 am

    I think one difficulty of trying to use litigation to curb this outrageous conduct is that any individual plaintiff's money damages will probably be less than the cost (and trouble) of going to law

    That's what punitive damages are for.

  15. dr pepper said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

    I get calls that say "this is about your credit card" but are not from any company i'm with. It's a solicitation for one of hte minor cards. They justify saying "about your c4redit card" because it's about trying to sell you on the idea that there's is a better deal.

    I've also gotten callss about my car warranty. One time i was curious enough to not hang up. They wanted my vin. I asked them what car i had, they said they didn't have that information they just had notification that my warranty was running out. I asked them what company they were with they said all of them. I said that sounds like a scam and hung up.

  16. Mary Kuhner said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:49 am

    Telephone companies became heavily involved with similar practices a few years back–tricking you into changing companies, mostly, a practice called "slamming." Regulation eventually followed, and now if you want to change phone companies this must be verified by a third-party service. Having been slammed myself (they talked a house-guest of mine into saying "yes" on the phone) I'm pleased by the effect of the new rules. I suspect that if the credit-card version becomes prevalent enough similar regulations will follow.

  17. Dr. DC said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

    Although not speech acts …

    When my father receives a call to buy (say) light bulbs, he says – "I am glad you called because I am lonely" or "I will barter the bulbs for my paintings"

    But the game of one-upsmanship, at first fun, can quickly descend into antisociality..


  18. Lingualurker said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

    But the game of one-upsmanship, at first fun, can quickly descend into antisociality..

    True. My favorite response is to say, "I don't answer questions over the telephone." When the caller says something like, "Why not?" I reply, "I don't answer questions over the telephone." But it does pall after a while. I'd rather not have to be interrupted with the call in the first place.

  19. Clint Burgess said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

    From what I've read (I'm not a linguist by profession, just a linguistic hobbyist), aren't speech acts hardwired into your brain once you've gained a certain degree of fluency? If so, once a person has been engaged in a conversation, then the hardwired rules of conversational discourse take over and one is compelled to accept the terms of the offer. I know Grice's maxims cover some of these conversation rules, but perhaps some of you know other, more recent findings for those of us who aren't deeply embedded in the field of stylistics and discourse analysis.
    Link to Grice's Maxims:

    On a somewhat related note, in the native American Indian language Shoshoni they have a proper noun that is sometimes used to refer to lawyers, government officials, and other persons who are not to be trusted. The word is 'Itsataipo' which is a compound noun formed from 'itsa' (coyote) and 'taipo' (whiteman).

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