Thursday, March 03, 2016

Guilt Trip

You know when you do something which, on balance, seems reasonable, yet you are left feeling bad about it?  Well, that's how I'm feeling right now - I have this lingering feeling that I've somehow been mean-spirited, even though, on a purely rational level, I know I haven't.  It all comes down to the fact that, yesterday, I declined to participate in one of the Office of National Statistics' (ONS) surveys.  To explain more fully, we have to go back nearly a fortnight, when, completely out of the blue, I received an unsolicited letter from the ONS, telling me that my household had been selected at 'random' to be part of a survey and that someone from the ONS would be calling to arrange a time to do the survey.  To be frank, it all came on like one of those scam letters telling you that you've 'won' some competition you never entered and that you just have to buy three hundred tins of a particular brand of soup and send off the labels in order to claim your prize.  Obviously, that immediately set my mind against co-operating.  Moreover, the whole assumption that I'd want to participate in the survey, (emphasised by the lack of any option for declining participation) really raised my hackles.  Plus, to be frank, I really can't be bothered with this sort of thing - it's an unwelcome intrusion into my personal time.

So, I just ignored it.  Nothing happened, so I assumed that my failure to ring any of the numbers given to arrange an appointment had been taken as an implicit refusal.  I was wrong.  A week later I received another letter from them, ominously threatening that someone would be calling at my address shortly.  This one at least included a return envelope an a form - not to decline the 'opportunity' to participate, but to arrange an appointment.  Undaunted, I simply wrote that I had no interest in participating in their survey on the form and put it in the post.  Too late, as it turned out: on Tuesday I came home to find a card shoved in my letter box telling me that their man had called and would call again.  Assuming that the letter would arrive before the follow up call, I ignored the card.  Next evening, as I fumbled in the dark with my keys, trying to unlock my front door as I came home from work, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, someone approaching me.  It was the man from the ONS. Preparing myself for attempts at persuasion, I told him I wasn't interested.  To my surprise, he meekly backed off.  For some reason, it was this reaction which made me feel guilty.  I mean, I was braced for some kind of attempt to persuade me to take part.  But no, nothing.  I'm sure I must have looked somewhat intimidating - I was wearing my winter coat and hat which make me look bulkier than I am and I know that I sounded exasperated - and the thought that I might have scared him off made me feel even worse.

The original letter had tried, and failed, to guilt trip me, which made my reaction to the ONS' capitulation even more surprising.  The letter had claimed that my address had been randomly selected from the post code database as part of the data set for the survey so, if I didn't participate, I couldn't be replaced and this might skew the results.  Which almost succeeded in causing a twinge of guilt, until, that is, a bit of research revealed that the exact same wording is used in letters sent out by just about every statistics agency in the English-speaking world when they are conducting surveys.  It's also, when you think about it, a highly questionable claim: surely any survey will take into account a certain percentage of non-respondents and adjust its results accordingly.  Besides, there is no reason why they can't replace you with another randomly selected address.  Except, of course, it isn't quite random as they admit that the data set is constructed using addresses selected from a variety of post code areas to produce a 'representative' sample of UK residents.  Which implies that they are already making assumptions about possible respondents on the basis of the post codes they live in. 

Despite all of this, the actual ONS guy's reaction still left me questioning my reasons for refusing to take part: was I just being bloody minded because I childishly thought that I was 'sticking it to the man' by refusing to co-operate with with a government survey?  Was I just irked by their assumption that I'd want to take part and, being a natural contrarian, refused just to show them that some of us won't dance to the establishment's tune?  I've thought long and hard about this, but I keep coming back to the fact that I simply don't want to participate.  It's a straightforward as that: there's no underlying agenda, no sense of triumphing over authority by being a refusnik.  I just don't have the time or the inclination right now to engage in this exercise.  I won't deny that if the ONS hadn't just contacted me without warning, coming on as if my co-operation was a fait accompli and had actually given the option of refusal on their initial letter, I might have been better disposed to them.  Likewise, if they hadn't persisted in trying to contact me, leaving me feeling harassed, I might have reacted differently.  But I doubt it.  Nonetheless, I'm still left feeling guilty about the whole business, despite knowing that I've done nothing wrong.   



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