An elderly salesman terrorized me in front of my kids!

He propositioned me and threatened me and wouldn't leave until I signed the contract!

Published October 24, 2007 10:06AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Recently, I received a visit in my home from a salesperson who represents a national home improvement chain.

Within seconds of this elderly man's visit, it was clear that unless I politely redirected him in the conversation, he was going to tell me more information that I cared to know about his personal life and his philosophies of the world.

In short, he was a boor. And a bore.

But it went from boorish to unsettling to threatening within two hours. The salesperson asked me to go out to dinner with him (I am a divorced mother of three kids, who were all in the same room). He asked me if I dated. He asked about my boyfriend and said a looker like me should have plenty. He talked about his ex-girlfriends. He regaled my children with a story about parents who divorced and then killed each other. He said that everyone knew that women were unable to make up their minds. He actually said my current kitchen looked like shit. He wanted to know if I had won the lottery in order to afford getting the work done. He chastised my children for not listening to me. He questioned if I received alimony.

He made me nervous, so I said we had a family engagement (two hours into his talk) and we would leave shortly.

He replied that he would wait outside in his car until we returned. I told him it would not be necessary; we were finished. He said he didn't mind waiting. I became frightened but did not want to make a scene in front of my children. I was so confused by his atrocious behavior that I did not know what to do.

Seeing no alternative, I kept hurrying him along so I could sign the paperwork with every intention of immediately canceling the project. After signing, he gave me $50 and said that my accepting the money meant that I wasn't allowed to cancel the contract. I reminded him that his notion was illegal and for him to keep his money. He replied that if I canceled the contract, a guy named Guido knew where I lived.

Like I said, this guy was weird. So I called this national chain and spoke to very concerned people there. I received many calls and apologies. Within 24 hours, the president of said company offered to do my entire job for free.

Here's my concern: I don't want to appear greedy at all and am thrilled with their $14,000 offer. Yet a lawyer friend said if they offered me that much so quickly, they are perhaps willing to do more for free to keep me from talking about this incident.

So, do I ask for new appliances? A new floor? I was actually going to do all of those things. Should I hold out for a cash settlement? After all, this man walked into my home, insulted my family and threatened us all. Am I foolish for not asking for more?

Bewildered Mom

Dear Bewildered Mom,

You appear to have a dangerous inability to say no.

What you did, because you have this dangerous inability to say no, is you put yourself, your kids and your house at risk.

In this situation, what you needed to do was to get this guy out of your house. You needed to do it forcefully, like a serious person, like a person who is not afraid or confused, like a person who is going to take action. You needed to pick up the phone, look the man in the eye and say, "This meeting is over. If you don't leave right now, I'm calling 911."

And then you needed to actually dial 911 so that if he should turn out to be a totally insane homicidal maniac and lunge at you, you've already dialed.

The fact that you didn't do this is troubling.

How could this be?

There are some clues in the words you use. You say you were so "confused by his atrocious behavior" that you didn't know what to do. "Seeing no alternative," you hurried him along so you could sign the contract!

"Angered by his atrocious behavior" would make sense. "Alarmed" would make sense. "Frightened" would make sense. But "confused"? That only makes sense if you met some internal contradiction to your natural response -- like, you're angered by his behavior but, he's the president of the United States so you feel conflicted. But there was no reason to feel internally conflicted here. This was not the president of the United States. This was just some creepy old gangster. Yet he wielded remarkable power over you, as though you had been hypnotized. Now, I understand that certain people, though they lack the outward signs of power, can be very frightening, almost paralyzing. I don't mean to say that this man had no ability to frighten; if he was a gangster, then he probably had a lifetime of experience intimidating people.

But in this situation, he had nothing to back it up. It just sounds like you have a deep fear of conflict. Con artists, of course, can sense this and use it to their advantage.

Parents don't train kids overtly to always avoid conflict. They don't say, "Now, child, I want you to always go through life afraid; I want you to always agree to anything anyone says to you, no matter what effect it may have on your life or the lives of your children." But they do teach you, through their actions, that resistance is not only futile but more dangerous than acquiescence.

Think about it. Say you grow up in a family with an explosive father, a really scary father who, for all you know, one day might murder the whole family. You don't know, you're just a kid! You've seen him threaten your mother, or beat your siblings, or beat you, and you know that anything can set him off. You live in fear of setting him off. Your survival strategy is to avoid all conflict. This survival strategy basically works, in the sense that your father does not kill you, and you are able to reach 18, get out of the house and start a life of your own.

So you take this basic lesson into life and it works OK, though not great, because you do get walked on a lot. People say things to you that are really out of line and you wonder why they say these things and get away with it. You look around when people say these things -- shouldn't someone protect you?! -- but no one comes to your defense. You're on your own. People do things to you and you wonder why. They lie to you and disrespect you. They manipulate you and betray you. But it does not occur to you that you can vocally protest because deep inside, you still believe that any kind of protest or conflict could lead to violence.

I can see how you might be in the situation you're in. But you have to see how outrageous your behavior looks from outside. You had a crazy old man in your house, threatening you, with your kids looking on, and instead of throwing him out of the house, you signed a contract with him!

So you need to get some help with this conflict avoidance. You need to learn to keep your house safe. You owe it to yourself and to your kids.

Before you do anything, consult with an attorney. Do not make any further agreements with this company. Do not sign anything from this company. Do not accept any offer of free work from this or any other company. Consult with an attorney -- not your attorney friend but an attorney who specializes in home repair and remodeling disputes. Ask your Better Business Bureau to recommend such an attorney, or ask your local bar association to recommend such an attorney.

Be willing to spend the money at least for a one-hour consultation. Ask the attorney how to properly settle your affairs with this company, and how to properly choose a company to work on your house.

And then I suggest you consult a psychotherapist about how to change this dangerous inability of yours to say no. It might be difficult, but I think you will be glad you did. You might find, in working on this, that it has played a part in other areas of your life.

Also, to inspire confidence and help you face conflict, you might consider some physical activities, such as martial arts classes.

Don't be terrorized by a nasty old man! Tell him to leave your house!

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