When Being Polite Turns A Dangerous Corner

My cell phone rang today. The caller ID showed UNKNOWN on it. I hesitated. But I run a business, and that call could be someone needing my services as a wedding officiant. So I answered. Here’s how the conversation went.

“Happy Life Weddings. This is Donna. Can I help you?”

A man with a very heavy Asian accent said a bunch of words in broken English that I couldn’t understand.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t understand that. Could you repeat that?”

More heavily-accented words. I thought maybe I caught the words “lost her”, “help”, and “love” in there, but that was a way-out-there guess on my part.

I hesitated. I was pretty sure I would never be able to comprehend what this man was saying.

But I’m polite. My momma taught me to be that way. Plus, I treat calls like this as business calls, and I would never want to be rude to someone who might one day be my client.

So my upbringing was screaming at me to remain polite.

In addition, I felt almost “guilty” that I couldn’t understand the man. No, it’s not my fault of course. I know that logically. But by not understanding him, I felt as though I was hurting his feelings, or even being racist.

I understand that’s not true, but in that moment of hesitation, that’s the kinds of feelings that went coursing through me.

So then I said, “I’m sorry, but I think you have the wrong number.”

That’s when the conversation’s “atmosphere” changed. I could almost feel the man’s demeanor morph into something slightly sinister. His tone was different, but I understood his words perfectly well when he said, “NO! NOT WRONG NUMBER!”

As he proceeded to say more words, words that sounded very much like all the words he’d said before, which I still couldn’t understand, my mind raced.

I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t want to be rude. But a knot of uncertainty – almost fear – was growing in my gut. The UNKNOWN on caller ID flashed through my brain like a warning beacon. Was this some sort of setup? A con? If I said the word “YES” to anything he said, would I be inadvertently agreeing to something I would regret later? Was this guy just playing on my politeness?

Social engineering, in the context of information security, refers to psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information.

The propensity to remain polite, even when a conversation makes us feel uneasy or afraid, gives a villain opportunity to take advantage. This was only a phone call, so the possible level of danger was fairly low. Nevertheless, people are conned, scammed, taken advantage of, phished, and socially engineered via the phone every day.

80,000 people fall for a scam and voluntarily give their personal information EVERY DAY.

I decided to throw my momma’s lessons out the window, and hang up the phone, but EVEN THEN, I still said “I’m sorry” first before pressing the END key.

I will never know if I did the right thing or the wrong thing today. Maybe the man truly needed my help. “Lost her”, “love”, and “help” were the three things I thought I heard. I hope my gut feeling didn’t cause harm to anyone.

In those moments of confusion, the line between being polite and being afraid turned into a chasm of conflict. My instincts warred with my upbringing. Con artists are experts at exploiting that conflict. I felt uneasy, teetering on the edge of fear. It was only a phone call, and possibly even a harmless one, at that.

But what if I were face to face with someone? There’s a good chance that I would be even LESS inclined to be rude. I would probably prolong the conversation, afraid to offend. I might be paralyzed by the lessons drilled into me as a child. “Be polite. Be respectful. Say ‘Yes sir’, ‘No sir’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Please’, and ‘I’m sorry’.” That paralysis could end in any number of ways, with me having little to no control over the situation. All because I might allow my propensity for politeness to overshadow the knot of uncertainty and fear growing in my gut.

Perhaps you were taught to be polite during conversation. If so, I hope you’ll at least consider the following advice.

If fear or doubt seeps into the conversation, don’t let your manners cause you to ignore your gut.

No matter where or how the conversation is taking place, get out immediately.

better to be rude

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