I haven’t been so good about updating for the past while, ever since I got a new job about a month ago.
I got a new job and I still haven’t told you about my old “new job.”
Let’s start with that, then.
After the eBay store I was working at shut down last December, I spent a couple of months looking for work before finding a job in February. I’ve mentioned the job in passing here before, but I’ve been vague, mainly because I couldn’t believe I was stuck there. The position was at an order desk, and I say “order desk” because it sounds vaguely better than “call centre.” I was taking orders from American customers (mostly cranky old ladies) calling with one of two catalogues, one selling bedding and the other one filled with the tackiest, most godawful crap you can imagine. We’ll come back to that in a bit.
Taking orders on the phone didn’t seem like it’d be too bad, but several conditions came together to make the job onerous. My favourite part of any job, particularly one of these McJobs, tends to be interacting with coworkers. Spending eight hours a day with a group of people, combined with the shared enemy that is the job creates a weird kind of closeness. At this place, however, conversations with the people I worked with were short and tense because you never knew when your phone was going to ring. The experience was like babysitting a ticking bomb; you’d always be cringing and praying it wouldn’t go off.
Even answering calls would have been okay, except for a couple of things. First, with the information we had to get from customers, our interactions were largely scripted, so we had little room for improvisation. I’d occasionally have a great conversation with a customer, but that would be the exception. What made this situation worse, though, was that we had to pitch a certain number of upsells in each phone call. Nothing drives a wedge between you and a person like when they figure out you’re trying to sell them something.
Even pitching once in a while would have been okay (“Hey, you’re buying pillowcases? We’ve got a special on pillows”), except for the fact that all the calls were recorded, and if you didn’t pitch in every call someone would come talk to you about it. In the late 1700s (stay with me here, I do have a point), an English philosopher named Jeremy Bentham came up with an idea for a prison called the Panopticon. This prison would be a circular building with all the cells in a ring around a central guard tower. The key feature of the prison was that the guards could see the prisoners, but not vice versa. The prisoners could never know when they were being watched, so they would have to assume that they were always being watched. As such, they would act properly even when no one was there. This idea comes up again in 1984- with the TVs in every house that watch you- among other places. At my job, the phone system that recorded every call was our Panopticon (Panauricon?). You never knew when a higher-up was listening, so you assumed they always were. When a phone call ended and you’d only pitched two upsells, you waited for the call from head office. The pressure was constant, and the best week I had at the job was when the recording program on my machine went down for five or six days.
The job was a true McJob in many ways, with the low pay, high turnover, and lack of any real power. We couldn’t do anything to help customers that had problems, which infuriated people who’d been on hold for twenty minutes. Those people combined with the customers who called and were assholes from the get-go for no reason at all (about two-thirds of them, I’d guess), inspired my co-worker Jason to say one day, “At night I dream of angry Americans calling me.” I told him that the line could be a song lyric.
On top of everything else, we were selling crap. The linen catalogue was fine, and I now know enough about thread counts and sheet sizes to impress even the most jaded passerby, but the other catalogue had nothing to redeem it. Imagine the tackiest, most useless examples of Western (and in particular American) excess that you can, then imagine them in hot pink, and then imagine a catalogue filled with similar items. I don’t have to imagine, because I’ve seen it. All the images in this post are items from the catalogue. Moreover, these aren’t even the worst ones in the book, these are just the worst ones I’ve had people buy from me. Every time I’d sit down to work, I’d think, “I am now part of the problem. I am helping to make the world worse.”
Not everything about the job was awful, and while it’s crappy to put this here at the bottom where everyone has stopped reading already, I did work with some funny people. Jason, for example, would make up songs about our predicament. This one was all about me:
(sung to the tune of “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”, by John Lennon)
So this is Davinder,
And what has he done?
He’s answering phone calls,
Not having much fun.
He's got lots of schooling,
So many years,
Now he stuck here at [name withheld]
Holding back tears.
And then the chorus with the children singing:
Answering phone calls
Boy that still cuts to the heart of me. Ouch.
The job sucked, but if I’d never worked there, I wouldn’t have heard that line.
We’d have funny phone calls sometimes too. A woman called in to Jason once and was surprised that he was person and not an automated response. She told him, in a hushed voice, “Jason, I thought you was a robot.”
(*Okay, I never sold that last one, with the pots, I just had to show you. Good Christ, that's awful. And someone's going to buy it.)