Letters

"We live in the age of the electronic sweatshop" -- readers respond to Gilbert Neal's "The Phones Don't Stop."


Salon Staff
January 14, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

[Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the story.]

I don't get it. If jobs like this one look as undesirable, despairing, frustrating, menial, lowly and demeaning as depicted in "The Phones Don't Stop," then what's the problem with outsourcing them to somewhere else? Or with having an immigrant doing it?

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Yet people of all political hues cry foul when this kind of jobs go to someone who needs and/or wants them.

Would somebody kindly explain this to me?

-- Sergio Armendàriz

Nothing is sadder than someone squandering his life in a job that makes him miserable. Life is very, very short.

The author's article was so familiar that I found myself saying, "Hey! That's the call center I worked in!" I used to work for a soulless, heartless, degrading, empty hole of a wireless service call center, populated by incompetents and generally miserable people, located in Washington state. I too answered phone calls on a 1-800 line. I too suffered at the "72 calls in queue holding!" signs. We had a boss who was so vile that, upon the fourth person in my department getting engaged in just six months, she brought a black cake into the office with "My Condolences" written on it. She was recently divorced, and tired of paying for cakes. Nobody can thrive in that atmosphere.

After two years of coming home to cry on my husband's shoulder, of becoming nearly as vile as my colleagues, I said to hell with it and quit. While my income decreased, my quality of life increased hugely. You can go nowhere if you are unhappy, and if your outlook is negative. It is better to put yourself in financial straits than mental and emotional straits. You can always find a way to pay your bills if you know your sanity is being saved.

I speak as a survivor!

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-- Denise Jones

Wow. It's been a long time since I've heard the amount of self-pity mixed with vindictiveness that I read in Gilbert Neal's opus about how terrible his job was. The ending, where he got a new job outside of the field of customer service didn't make me happy for him, it made me happy for the customers at his old firm who no longer have to deal with him being on the other end of the "service" line.

Were we supposed to feel sorry for this jerk? He knows that the customers are already being mistreated by the company, so he decides to play a game with them by answering the phone but not speaking into it. Such maturity. I can't imagine why he didn't get those promotions that he longed for. Does he realize the irony, by the way, of relentlessly moaning about his lack of additional promotions, but then snidely writing of co-workers, "People like Shelly and Mary are constantly complaining about getting looked over for promotions." Something tells me he didn't. Or the irony in his six-page complaint including the fact that Tonya was "a very big complainer"? Again, probably not.

He did get one thing right, though. He wrote at one point, "Why don't people like me? I probably would not like me either." I can't speak for everybody, Mr. Neal, but I sure as hell don't.

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-- Stephen J. Smith

Thank you for this article. I set appointments and take messages for a large medical clinic. This made me feel a little better. Boy, could I tell a tale or two!

I consider myself a reasonable, amiable, caring person who likes people. Until I was on the job here for a few months, that is. On a daily basis I am verbally abused by, embarrassed for, disgusted by, angry at, and saddened by people and their hubris, their demands, and their lack of common courtesy. After a year at this job, I began to despair for myself and all of humanity.

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Being as I am only human, I must occasionally resort to "accidentally" disconnecting a call to A) save my sanity or B) save my job -- as I would most certainly scream at some of these "if this was Burger King I'd have what I wanted in one minute! I am an American and I deserve everything now!" types. If only I could say what I am really thinking. "Well, er, this is a doctor's office, sir, and contrary to what seems to be popular belief, your doctor sees patients while she's here and consequently is not available to chat anytime you have a headache, or immediately put in an order for a narcotic because you sprained your toe and don't think you should have to come in. Oh yes, fuck you very much, and have a nice day!" And yes, I am not making those calls up. They and similar happen on nearly a daily basis.

Here then, for members of the U.M. (i.e., unwashed masses) is a list of behaviors to avoid if you don't want your call "accidentally" disconnected.

1) Don't start the call yelling. Don't call me "you people" or "missy," or shout "answer me!" as if you were my father. I answer the phone, direct calls and make appointments. I have nothing to do with the reason you are upset, and if you shout at me and upset me, you have lost your only connection to the people who can actually fix what you think is wrong.

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2) Don't eat while you are talking to me. I wear a headset, and to have you masticating in both my ears is so disgusting, I literally cannot abide it. The same rule applies to snorfling. I know you're sick, you don't have to prove it! Blow your nose for god's sake.

3)Do not think you are going to conduct this call on speakerphone. It ain't gonna happen. If I hear you shouting at me from across the room, I will say, "Hello? hello?" If you don't pick up the handset, it's goodbye, goodbye.

4)Similarly, don't call me screaming into a cellphone by the side of a highway to ask for a refill or for any other non-life-or-death emergency. Cellphones have been known to cut out and ... oops! Looks like yours just did.

5) Do you really think I'm going to continue to talk to you if you call me stupid or cuss me out?

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These obnoxious violations of common courtesy are pretty much the only ones that will get you disconnected, though I'm sorry to say they only scratch the surface of bad behavior. I wish I had a dollar for every time some clueless parent whose toddler has had an ear infection (or the croup, or similar) for three weeks calls us late Friday afternoon and has the balls to bitch when there isn't an appointment available. "So I suppose you want to be responsible if my child is seriously ill and dies?!" they shout. Uh, no. Actually, you are the one who is responsible. I am the one who feels sorry for the child and the world that you were able to breed. "Well, what am I supposed to do now?!" they holler. Uh. Hmmm. That's a tough one. I mean, they've got this thing called the emergency room, but I mean you are only 37 years old and a gainfully employed father of three. Why should I expect you to figure that one out?

-- Name Withheld

I love Salon, but there's one type of story that you run from time to time that pisses me the fuck off. These stories typically involve mildly intelligent, white, Gen-X, college-educated office workers who think that customer service work has forever robbed them of their existential integrity. I don't know why you choose to run these stories. I suppose they validate the perception of the American workplace as a yawning abyss into which we cast the best and brightest of my generation. To which I say: horseshit. I'm 28. I work in an office as a data entry temp. I chose to quit university because, as an aspiring writer, I wanted to be in the "real world." I've done phone work. I've done retail. Both sucked. I'm still happy with my decision. The world owes me nothing.

Has Gilbert Neal, or whatever his name really is, ever read Studs Terkel? Never mind the vicarious experience of reading about labor that he would presumably prefer. Has he ever hung drywall with a 70-year-old man who was still working for a living, or ever gone into a fire-gutted building and beat the hell out of a kitchen with a sledgehammer? I can say from experience that it's tough to wallow in numbness and self-loathing when you have sweat and ash pouring down your back. I've talked with middle-aged men stuck in manual labor jobs. They tough it out for their families, because they've learned that life is about more than themselves and their precious existential or artistic integrity. Which is why, when reading this white-bread bitch session, I wanted to say: Of course the phones don't stop. If they did, you'd be out of a job, you jackass.

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Mr. Neal writes of a co-worker who had the courage to quit, hoping he landed on his feet. As if quitting a shit job was equivalent to getting dumped in the Sahara with a leaky canteen and some fruit roll-ups. How about this: Quit your lame job, find a good bridge to sleep under, and buy yourself a used copy of George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London." Read it. Eat at a soup kitchen. Rinse. Repeat. Keep rinsing and repeating until you've scoured every trace of entitlement out of your world-weary and oh so racially sensitive head.

-- Josh Avram

I, too, have manned a cubicle at some of America's "finest" call centers, providing "customer service," and watching the state of our culture (and our economy) go right down the toilet.

Mr. Neal's dead-on assessment of the quality of management, the hiring and firing practices and the basic lack of humanity that have become standard practice in (not just) the customer service culture these days is an awful portent of the future for all employment in this country. In that very near future, no one will actually care about the work they do. No one will take a personal interest in the general welfare of the company or in the people around them. We will all be expected to be lazy and apathetic, moving blindly from one $7/hour job (when we've finally gotten fed up) to another $7/hour job and start all over again. And if you do want to stay and move up the corporate ladder, you'd better be the least qualified, least intelligent, least likely person to rock the boat, think for yourself or actually do your job well.

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Think I'm exaggerating? I have observed firsthand how companies build "behavior" files on their employees, dutifully logging any slight infringement of company policy in order to someday provide a reason for firing. And the firing comes not when those supposed misbehaviors cross some hypothetical line, but when it's time to downsize.

These corporations want us to be sheep. Sheep that are paid poorly, that barely (if at all) receive benefits and who don't have the intelligence or passion to stand up to unfair (and sometimes downright immoral) company policies that usually end up hurting not just their customers, but, in the long run, all consumers.

That way they can keep running their companies however they damn well please -- at the expense of our culture, our economy and our sanity.

-- Christopher Dazey

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Wow! What a loser Gilbert Neal is.

Through my prism, this is so much the story of the U.S. technology worker. Doing a half-assed job and complaining about it endlessly, and yet oh so surprised when companies find grateful, effective workers elsewhere, for far less money.

At my old I.T. job, when rudely rebuffed by developers who were asked to merely do their jobs, we used to look at each other and say, "Hmm, wonder if those guys in India would have a problem with that request?"

Ah well. Better go. I'm on hold and think my turn is coming up.

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-- B. Brown

I could have written this article! Following a career disaster, I had signed up with a temp agency and was working for a company that provides mortgage-insurance maintenance for several large banks. I worked on calling before transferring to data entry and both were hideous. I was hired on by the company relatively soon. The co-worker relationships, everything described in the article is dead-on! If you are creative and bright, you have found yourself in hell!

Don't get me wrong; as things go, it was a nice company and I noticed no difference in the treatment and promotion of black employees (something I have become very aware of over the years). One of the things I found most amusing, in a sick-humor sort of way, is the way our trainer would push all these "creative-thinking" exercises. Creative thinking is the last thing the companies want! What they want is a lot of little cogs turning the wheel smoothly!

I can recall having a heart-to-heart with the office manager (a rather nice person) about how frustrated I felt since my previous work had been all about problem-solving, making decisions that had effects, and actual creative thinking. I could not believe that she insisted that I could do this in the context of what I was doing. Right, shall I pick up the phone with my right hand or my left? Shall I start the data entry from the bottom or the top this time?

Another hilarious episode (to me, anyway) was the day the company announced a name change and proceeded to give us all "Certificates of Achievement" for our help in creating this enormous landmark event. I don't recall that any of us had anything to do with it. Granted, there were some saving graces: One or two people who had the same perception of the absurdity of our situation and who shared comments via e-mail and face-to-face. We were safe -- nobody else "got it."

We live in the age of the electronic sweatshop. We live in a time when corporations want to be perceived as being and doing what they say and not actually what they do. Like any sweatshop, they will go on gobbling up the lives of those who cannot, for whatever reasons, move on. They will abuse their employees in subtle and not-so-subtle ways and get away with more and more of it. I was blessed, I got away from it, but have had to live with the consequences of having to manage my own health insurance and all the other things that go with freelance living. But it's worth it! Could I have done this if I had a child to feed, a mortgage to pay? No. The people who have no escape route will remain trapped.

-- Nancy-Cassandra Kenfield

"Why don't people like me? I probably would not like me either."

Perhaps because the author writes snotty things on birthday cards, complains constantly, and writes dramatic one-sentence paragraphs over and over again. Some people are just naturally unlikable.

Like Gilbert.

Just like Gilbert.

-- Brian Cook

Thank God, I'm not the only one. And Mr. Neal did get out, so at least there's hope.

Please do not publish my name, as even though my job stinks it does have the virtue of paying the bills, so I need to keep it.

-- Name Withheld


Salon Staff

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