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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Friends Want Me To Join Their Pyramid Scheme!

A woman struggles with what to say to her friends who have joined a multi-level marketing endeavor. (Jay Mantri/ Creative Commons)
A woman struggles with what to say to her friends who have joined a multi-level marketing endeavor. (Jay Mantri/ Creative Commons)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions via email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

A few casual acquaintances have started selling products in one of those multi-level marketing situations, which I fear is a pyramid scheme. They post (a lot) on Facebook about how much money they’re making, and how little of a commitment it is, and how it’s all puppies and rainbows.

I’m glad for them if it's really working. To each her own! But I also find the frequency and content of the posts annoying. (I've actually hidden these friends from my feed.) I am also skeptical of how beneficial these programs actually are for the sellers. I have read a lot about this particular company, and it seems sketchy at best.

But here’s where I need some help.

These friends keep trying to recruit me. One friend sent a personal email where she first asked me about my life and then added a recruitment pitch at the end. I responded to her personal questions, and then I politely told her I was not interested in selling the products. A few months later, this person tried again, at which point I was more curt with my response. More recently, a mutual friend who also sells for this company told me she wants to meet for coffee, and I am 99 percent sure it’s just to evangelize about the business model.

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I know these people, and they are good people. I want to believe that their aim is true, that they really believe the bill of goods they’re selling, and have my best interest at heart. But I can’t help but feel extremely turned off and annoyed by their persistence and disregard for my indifference.

I don't want to offend these friends by telling them my true feelings about their chosen line of work, and I also think they should know how their pitches are coming across. Mostly, though, I just want them to take no for an answer.

Help. What should I do? Say?

Yours,
Let Me Be

Dear Let Me Be,

First off, just to provide some background for the uninitiated: the basic idea in multi-level marketing (sometimes called network marketing) is that people make money not by selling products but by recruiting others to become part of the sales force. These new recruits pay for that privilege (usually in the form of a “starter kit” of product) and their money goes to the folks who recruited them, and the folks who recruited the recruiter, and so on that way all the way up the pyramid. It is a genuinely creepy and, by most accounts, deeply unethical (if not technically illegal) business model.

Having said this, I want to be clear that there are plenty of legitimate businesses in which the sales staff receives merchandise directly from a distributor and sells it directly to friends, family and acquaintances (think Avon or Tupperware). We have a good friend who sells jewelry in this way, and we’ve happily purchased stuff from her. But the key distinction here is that our friend has never been pushy, and has also stuck with selling us products, not trying to get us to become salespeople, or investors.

Vis a vis your situation, it seems to me you’re doing what you need to do, which is to tell your friends, politely, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

what you see as sketchy hectoring they see as <em>an amazing business opportunity</em>! Welcome to America.

It’s also quite clear that you can tell them “how their pitches are coming across” without making judgments about their new business endeavors. There’s a big difference between “please stop pitching me” and “please stop pitching me because I believe you’re involved in an icky, cultish ponzi scheme!”

If you want to take it a step further without questioning their judgment, you might let these friends know that, while you understand the enthusiasm they feel for their new endeavor, and wish them well with it, you don’t like the feeling that an ulterior motive is creeping into the friendship.

Of course doing this — being radically honest — runs the risk of alienating your friends. Because they’re not going to want to hear these views, no matter how compassionately you frame them. Because what you see as sketchy hectoring they see as an amazing business opportunity!

Welcome to America.

So you really have a decision here and it’s based on how much you value these specific friendships, and how much you value candor in the context of a friendship.

There’s a decent chance, after all, that these folks are just in a phase and that they’ll eventually realize multi-level marketing is not for them, or that evangelizing friends isn’t for them, and they’ll stop utzing. Most of the folks who get recruited into MLMs wind up quitting within a few months. That’s how the whole model deal works.

My personal advice is to decide how forthright you want to be and say what you need to say (kindly, respectfully!) then stop worrying about it. If these friends take umbrage, chances are the friendship wasn’t going to last anyway. Or perhaps they’ll circle back, once the capitalist Kool-Aid has worn off.

Good luck and don’t take any wooden nickels. (Unless, of course, they’re genuine commemorative wooden nickels. Those are worth a fortune!)

Steve

Author's note: This question is, in some sense, about the American Dream. Not the old one about hard work and dedication. But the new one, about getting rich in a hurry. It’s where capitalism meets religion. Or perhaps becomes a religion. What do you guys think? Please feel free to leave a comment below. And please send your own questions along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don’t have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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