Thursday, March 03, 2011

Talking to Strangers

My friends were all starting their second semesters of college when I became a telephone survey operator for $6.50 an hour. It was my second job, having been fired from my first two years before. I hadn't particularly wanted the job, or any job, but my parents had made it clear that if I were to stay in their house a minute longer that I needed to have a job, especially since I wasn't going to school like all my friends.

Those friends had spent the Spring before poring over college applications and waiting for their acceptance letters. They picked prom dresses and rented limos, then graduated with caps and gowns, walked across stages and then spent the summer buying bedding for their dorms. College was all they talked about - majors, minors, to pledge or not to pledge, football games, parties. But I was a drop out.  I tried a semester of college, but only made it to Thanksgiving break. After that I thought about community college again, but I got a bad case of bronchitis and withdrew from my classes in two weeks. 

I wrote them letters. This was before email, so I patiently handwrote on notebook paper and mailed real letters to PO Boxes at universities. I didn't get a lot of replies. My friends were busy with new friends, people they now called sisters and brothers and roomies. I had nothing.

I'd try to call them. Usually their dorms had a community phone on each floor. It was always busy. Whenever someone would answer they'd never be able to find the person I was looking for. Other times it would ring and ring. I imagined the phones at the ends of long, silent hallways lined with closed, locked doors ringing and ringing.

I had nowhere to go. Each day I got up, made something to eat in my parents' kitchen and listened to my mom nag me to clean up after myself and figure out what I was going to do with my life. I went to the library sometimes and read. I'd walk over to the beach and sit there looking out at the waves, but wherever I went I found nothing but quiet and the quiet stared at me blankly, dully. Each night I went to bed imagining what my friends were doing away at school and then I wondered if I could even call them my friends. Were they still my friends or were they now just people I'd known before at another time in my life?

At least the job was something to do. I'd known a girl who worked there over the Fall but she'd moved away with a boyfriend. She said it was easy money and you got paid no matter what since you weren't selling anything.

"You just ask people questions," she said.

Some jobs hire everyone who applies. This place was like that, which is why they hired me. The only job requirement was the ability to speak and you didn't even have to speak all that well. We had recent immigrants on the phones.

You didn't have to dress up, degree not required. You just had to come to work and even that was negotiable. You came on the days when you wanted to work. You had to stay from five to ten in the evening. Saturday afternoons were optional and they were closed on Sunday. We called only during the hours when people were more likely to be home. I've interrupted probably hundreds, if not thousands of strangers in the middle of dinner.

More ringing phones. This was before cell phones and email. Not too many people even had Caller ID, so sometimes people answered. Now we can screen calls better. Those who picked up probably hoped it was a friend or a loved one, maybe good news, but it was just me asking for a few moments of their time to conduct a brief marketing survey.

I'd get a print out at the beginning of each shift. It was on that old kind of computer paper with the perforated strips on each side and it listed the numbers for me to call. It would be a different city each time. Maybe Monday night I'd call Lincoln, Tuesday Dubuque and Wednesday Hartford. I went down my list, tapping the numbers into a push button phone, fiddling with my headset, which never seemed to fit right and hoping for a pick-up.

We had a series of codes we had to write next to the numbers and then when we'd dialed every number on the sheet, we had to turn it in to our supervisors.

HU - hang up
AM - answering machine
B - busy signal
OOT - out of town
NH - not home (for when someone other than the head of household answered and the head of the household was out).
P - Partial (if they did part of the survey and quit before finishing)
C - complete

Those Cs were elusive. We lived for Cs because hardly anyone would finish a whole survey.

I got yelled at, cussed out and threatened. Many people said they were busy and were polite and some even talked to me. People actually talked to me. So I talked back and I asked them what newspapers they preferred, what radio stations they listened to and at what time. I asked them which local news was the best and if their recent mattress purchase was highly satisfactory or just satisfactory.

Within a month the company gave me a slight raise and praised me for being one of their top surveyors. I had an unusually high percentage of Cs on my list. People didn't hang up on me quite as often as they did with everyone else. I always wondered if they sensed my desperation and if there was some unconscious way that they could feel my need to talk to someone.

It was the need to talk to someone that made me go to work all six shifts per week. The job was tedious. I sat in a grey, walled in cubicle in a huge, humming, fluorescent-lit, industrial carpeted room of identical grey, walled in cubicles. As I punched the keys on the phone with the eraser end of my pencil I would imagine all of these cities I'd never seen and what their streets looked like. Who was I calling? How did they look and how did they decorate their homes? I made up stories in my head about the towns and the disembodied voices I listened to. Though I really knew nothing about these individuals I would often feel a sense of intimacy with them upon knowing that they preferred Kool-Aid over Hawaiian Punch or that each morning a neighborhood kid delivered to their doorstep the Sacramento Bee which they would then read (over breakfast?).

I asked them about the weather in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and Columbia, South Carolina. If I heard dogs barking I would ask the dog's name and what breed it was. Usually, they told me. A lot of times I wouldn't have to ask because sometimes I called people who wanted someone to talk to just as much as I did They told me everything: grief, divorce, a cheating spouse, drinking problems, a son in jail, a daughter pregnant, do you think he loves me? I answered the phone because I thought it might be him. Do you think he'll call me?

Because I couldn't go off script too much without getting in trouble, as all calls could be recorded for quality control, my answers would be something like "in thinking about the soft drinks your household purchases most often would you say that you are more or less likely to buy Crystal Light - yes, I do think he'll call you."

Maybe it was my childlike, unthreatening voice or maybe there are just a lot of people who keep a lot hidden, who want someone to listen who won't judge or criticize them. So many of us want a connection with other human beings where we can share our feelings without consequence, even if it's just to get out all the things we wish we could say.  Our husbands are idiots, we hate our mothers-in-law, we are in love with our coworkers, our lives are not as we had planned, we will never get over our exes, our wives have let themselves go and our grown children disappoint. No one understands. We want an escape, if only that escape is a ten minute phone call about our favorite department stores.We are lonely and we want someone to listen to us.

I loved my job as a telephone surveyor. The place closed down a few years after I quit so I could move to Atlanta. I don't think telephone surveys even exist anymore now that everything is online or outsourced. I'll never forget what I learned at that job - that I'm not the only person who is lonely and that sometimes, it's ok to talk to strangers.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. You reminded me of how I felt right after graduation, when everyone went to college except me.

And you nailed the "call center" experience too. All that creeping emptiness. I too used to day dream while on the phones and end up with customers that wanted to talk to me. We made an unexpected human connection, so even if it was a business call - it was "real" enough for two people just trying to survive another drab day.

Good writing Little Mother!

(had to say that, your posts about the baby are so adorable)


Jennifer said...

Those companies still exist. Well, at least they did as of 2004. During college, I worked 2 years as a part- time telephone Columbia, South Carolina.

Melanie said...

So, you were a "call girl" back in your younger days? :)

Me too.

janet from chicago said...

Dear Wide Lawns - I'm so sorry that you're sad again & will continue to pray for you. I have faith that better days are coming for you. You rock & we love you!

Kerry said...

My experience with a call-center was not nearly as good as yours was. Then again, we were trying to sell things, and I was spectacularly bad at it. You're right, though, about the people who are just lonely and wanted someone to talk to. I didn't know how to handle that, and I probably did it badly.

Yes, it's not only ok to talk to strangers but sometimes it's downright awesome. I used to talk to people everywhere- grocery store, on the sidewalk, in fast food places, wherever. I've fallen out of the habit lately and I kind of miss it in some ways. I'd gotten sort of jaded on people, and have pulled back and some parts of that were a mistake.

Thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

Such jobs definitely still exist. My younger sister is working at a phone survey place in North Carolina.

Tooter said...

Yep, call centers still exist, and yours truly works for one, at the U. S. Census Bureau.

I call on one survey that is mandatory-American Community Survey-and get cussed out and hung up on frequently.

If you ever receive a call from the Census Bureau and you're not sure its us, get a call back number and a case id number. Hang up and call information and verify the origin of the number. The ACS is like the Nelson ratings for your tax dollars. Your Congressmen use it to verify funding needs for his district.

I do like the job, I just wish I didn't get hung up and cussed out so much.

Anonymous said...

I always talk to the survey folks. I figure that most people yell and/or hang up on them so why not give them a break?

I really particularly sorry for the ones that struggle to read the questions, and there are more than a few of those. Almost illiterate, where will they be 20 years from now?

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

As someone who is in transition from an escort to a psychologist, I found this post exceptionally moving. I did not expect to learn this about call centers - and it reaffirms for me how badly so many people need someone to talk to, to feel connection and closeness. How big the need is for people who can deliver this.

JoeinVegas said...

I still get calls, and unless I'm really busy I'll take the time to answer. Some end up running way to long (my limit is about 20 minutes).
I think about the caller, and the cubicle room they are in and what they'll go home to.

Amelia said...

I guess I was mistaken as to your age. Based on previous posts, I thought you were my older sister's age. But when she went to college, almost all colleges had individual phones in rooms and she definitely had email as a freshman. It's so interesting how quickly things change. Today's college students probably don't remember life without email!

Also, I've never worked in a call center, and your experience is quite enlightening.


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