Mercenary Bell-Ringing

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In December 1997, I was scrambling for a job, trying to support myself and my new wife in Houston, Texas, a huge city that I didn't know. We answered as many ads in the newspapers as we seemed qualified for, turning in applications for fast food, grocery stores and surprisingly, bell-ringing for the Salvation Army1. I had always assumed that bell-ringers were volunteers. As it turns out, they make enough money from donations that it's worth while to pay someone minimum wage to do it, at least in years when volunteer numbers are low2.

They know that they're giving people a very simple task to earn this money, so they demand a few simple rules of their bell-ringers. Those who break the rules may be dismissed or asked not to come back any other days.


There are probably local variations in the rules for bell-ringing, but these are the ones I remember from my days ringing for the Pasadena, Texas operation:

  1. Bell-ringers should stand at all times while on duty. We were allowed a half hour for lunch and fifteen minute breaks every two hours. If medically necessary, a person could bring a chair, but everyone else was supposed to stand.
  2. The kettle should not be left unattended. During breaks or if you need to use the restroom or if some other emergency comes up, you should leave the kettle in a secure location - with the manager of the store outside of which you are ringing, or bring the kettle with you.
  3. Bell-ringing should be constant while on duty. It doesn't have to be vigorous, but it should keep going. Ringers spotted with silent bells might be dismissed for the day, or asked not to return for other days.
  4. Bell-ringers should make eye contact with people who approach the stores or offices where they are stationed, and say, 'Hello' or some other greeting. People don't want to give money to someone who looks sombre, so ringers were expected to smile at customers. Ringers who were seen ignoring customers might be dismissed or asked not to return for other days.

The Experience

The tasks of the job are not too tricky, but they're more physically gruelling than you might expect, unless you are accustomed to standing all day long. Part of what made it gruelling was that they expected ten hours each day. To ensure that people would finish their full shifts, or to maintain security of those kettles full of money, they would not allow paid bell-ringers to drive to their assigned locations. We were to report to the local Salvation Army headquarters in the morning, then they delivered us by van to our assigned stations and picked us up at the end of the day. Unfortunately people were assigned all over the city, so your ride might carry you an hour or two to drop off other ringers before reaching your location. Counting this travel time, you might be occupied for twelve to fourteen hours of the day. If ten hours of ringing a bell doesn't play on your nerves, another four hours riding in a van each day might.

Are you familiar with the childrens' trick where they challenge you to hold up a pencil in your palm at arm's length for ten minutes? It sounds easy because a pencil is so light. But holding the weight of your own arm out for ten minutes can be difficult. This is the same principle you'll find after ten hours of ringing a bell.

Early in the day, you might see enthusiastic ringers waving their bells cheerily in long arcs from their shoulders to their sides. By the end of the day, most of them will hold their arms straight down, the bell flicked back and forth with as little movement as possible from their wrists. Ironically, after they've discovered the proper way to flick their wrists, the ringing will sound almost frantically fast by the end of the day, as if to force the world to turn faster and quitting time to come sooner.

The Lesson

All of the above is mildly interesting (or not), but the more important thing you will gain from the experience is seeing lots of strangers return eye contact and return your smiles. People raised in rural areas of the United States may still greet or make eye contact with strangers walking down the street, but in cities, it marks you as a hick or a weirdo3. In big cities, they claim you're more likely to get mugged if you make eye contact with strangers.

After smiling and making eye contact all day, you'll notice the portion of people who ignore you, the portion who try to ignore you, and the portion who respond to you. Although some people manage to scowl or maintain whatever expression was already stuck on their faces, the majority will smile back at you. Returning smiles is practically instinctual. Like when babies learn to recognize human faces and learn to make similar faces. They haven't learned the language, and they probably haven't been given Pavlovian rewards to influence them (unless receiving a smile is the reward in itself). If they're not afraid of you eating them, they'll usually smile back at you. Most children and adults will do the same.

The ironic part is that some people are too shy, or they're brought up not to 'stare' or interact with strangers, so they never get the chance to see benefits from it. They get stuck in a self-perpetuating loop where they never learn how often people respond positively to eye contact and smiles. These are the people you'll see who stare at the ground as they walk past you into stores, as if the red kettle and incessant bell weren't enough to get their attention. Don't assume they're all cold-hearted people, because they might be afraid of strangers, or they might be following social mores against smiling and speaking to strangers.

How It Changes Your Life

It's difficult to prove that you will make more friends just because you occasionally smile or say hello to strangers. But common sense should tell you that you don't make close friends without introducing yourselves and talking. Without someone breaking the ice, it might stay frozen indefinitely. The act of smiling and saying hello is a minor invitation to keep talking. Engaging in this behavior all the time is like breaking the ice all the time

The lesson has to be carried into your daily life, with friends and acquaintances, not just strangers. You might not make a lot of friends if you actually go bell-ringing, but when you dispense these small invitations to neighbors or acquaintances or co-workers who you see every day, some of them might feel open to longer discussions, or they might introduce themselves.

Give yourself permission to look at people and smile and speak to them. It's a simple change, but you won't know how nice the results might be until you try it.

Bonus: How To Pass A Bell-Ringer Without Donating

Feel like a cheapskate because you can't afford to donate, or because you choose not to? Don't worry about it. Most bell-ringers don't mind, and most of them won't press you about it. For all they know, you might have donated to five other bell-ringers that morning, or you might plan to donate some coins or smaller bills on your way out, after you break a $50 in the store. To survive the experience, simply smile back at them while you walk past, or say hello. When you're standing in the cold for long hours trying to catch the attention of dozens of people who ignore you, it's nice to just have someone acknowledge you're alive, that you're not a ghost haunting the site where you froze to death an hour ago.

Sometimes I can't afford to donate and other times I choose not to. To maintain the illusion that I'm somewhat generous, I started keeping a small stash of coins in my car. The quarters and dimes occasionally get spent on gas or french fries, but pennies accumulate all year long. Then when the holidays roll around, I have a fistful of pennies and a few nickels to drop in the first kettle I see. It only adds up to fifty cents or a dollar, but it makes me feel a little less like a skinflint.

Christmas banner by Wotchit


18.12.03 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Every year at Christmas time across the USA, representatives from the Salvation Army ring handbells outside storefronts and government offices, soliciting charitable donations. Passersby drop coins or money or checks into little, red kettles stationed near the bell-ringers.2I could not find information about how many bell-ringers are paid and how many are volunteers. Don't be angry at them if this is the first you've heard of paid bell-ringers, because some of the same people who receive the Salvation Army's assistance are able to make a little more money from bell-ringing.3In some cultures, prolonged eye contact may be considered aggressive or anti-social behavior. Check with your local culture before attempting this anywhere outside of the continental United States.

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