Hello, America! Miss Manners Calling....

by Caitlin Servilio

I have a secret life that I try to keep on the DL* from my friends and family. Every Monday and Thursday, I slip into a phonebooth, do a quick costume change, and emerge in the shape of my alter-ego, the most despised creature on Earth:

A telemarketer.

Yes, I work for the Phonathon, the American University department that calls alumni to ask for donations to the school. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it, and as I need some way to support all my frivolous expenses like textbooks and food and music (please see: "(Mis)Adventures in Ticketland"), that someone is me.

The truth is that the job is incredibly difficult. I have to call people who are extremely uninterested in hearing from me and who are often doing something terribly important, like cooking dinner, that can’t wait for thirty seconds while they politely decline my call. People hang up, they angrily inform me that they are eating dinner, and some harangue me about how much they hate American University because it denied them their rightful financial aid. (This seems to me like someone harassing a receptionist because a corporation stole their money. Just what do alumni imagine that I, a telemarketer, can do about a financial matter that is ridiculously out of my hands?)

But being on the receiving end of all this rudeness got me wondering about something. Just how hard is it to say nicely, “I’m sorry, we’re not interested” to a telemarketer before hanging up? How hard is it to respond, “Good, how are you?” to a waitress who greets you in a restaurant? How hard is it to say “Thank you” to a bus driver or salesperson? I don’t often see these things happening. Which leads to the most important question of all....

Are Americans mean?

Perhaps this question doesn’t rank with great ones like “If a tree falls in a forest, does anybody hear it?” But I think it’s still worth asking. Has America become a nation full of people who bump into you without excusing themselves and ignore those who serve them on a daily basis?

It’s a known aphorism that if you want to get the measure of a man, you should look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. I think part of the problem might be thinking of the service industry as inferiors in the first place. Just because someone is working behind the counter at Starbucks doesn’t mean that they’re a Spock-like organism** with no feelings or life of their own. When I go into a public area, I’m repeatedly embarrassed by how people treat each other.

Remember kindergarten? When your teacher told you play nice with the other kids? Just because you’re older and grumpier now, doesn’t mean the rules have changed. If you don’t want your waiter to spit in your burger, you should be polite to him for a change. And if you don’t want someone to feel horrible after her work shift, maybe you should be kind to her when she calls you, even if you were just about to bite into your dinnertime pork chop.

But then, you don’t have to listen to me — after all, I’m just a telemarketer.

*Cultural Editor's Note #1: People of a certain age may want to know that this is short for "down low" as in the phrase, "keep it on the down low (or DL)" for something you wish to keep semi-secret. Please see the Urban Dictionary for more.

**Cultural Editor's Note #2: People of a certain age may want to know this refers to one of the key characters in the original Star Trek television series. Please find a DVD or VHS of the series to catch the full meaning of this cultural reference. But please do not substitute Enterprise for this to find the true meaning, unless you want Gene Roddenberry to spin even more furiously in his resting place in space orbit.

(Photo by mikha_el of Chorzow, Poland from stock.xchng.)

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Anonymous said...

the great and late comic Bill Hicks had a lot to say about marketing jobs


I have to say I agree with his solutions.... even if you sound like quite a nice sort !

Brunch Bird said...

I'd love to give you the answer to your question about how hard it is to have to give a certain type of response to someone calling during the precious few hours I have to myself in the evening to sell me something or ask for money. Just post your phone number. I'm sure I and everyone else who reads this will be happy to call you this evening while you're fixing dinner* to tell you.

*No, it's not "terribly important", but you know what, I don't want to have to stop what I'm doing to go find the phone and then listen to the start of a commercial while I'm trying to saute the shallots.

Also, wrapping in the "how hard is it to be nice to a telemarketer" question with "how hard is it to be nice to a bus driver/waitress/etc" question seems to be comparing apples to oranges. Of course you need to be nice to the latter groups; you're seeking a service that they are providing. The telemarketer is seeking me out in an intrusive way and immediately requiring me to do something for them (pick up the phone and deal with them.)

Caitlin Servilio said...

It troubles me that you feel you only "need to be nice" to groups whose services you are seeking. Isn't the point of kindness that you should be kind to everybody, not just people from whom you require something? I don't think what you're describing is niceness at all. I'm not questioning that you work hard and you want your precious few hours of free time to be relaxing, that's reasonable. But the depth of anger in your comment over a one minute interruption in your relaxing time, that sounds unreasonable.

Thank you for your offer to call me tonight while I'm fixing dinner. Believe it or not, telemarketers call me too (I don't have some magical exemption), yet I manage not to answer them rudely. Perhaps that's because I've experienced what it's like on the other end of the phone. In the end, that's all I wanted my blog to say: try to imagine how you would feel in somebody else's shoes, even if that person has the audacity to be soliciting donations for AU. Then reconsider your words.

Brunch Bird said...

For starters, the "you give me your number" is a Seinfeld routine. I thought most folks would recognize it.

I'm not saying I only need to be nice to groups whose services I'm seeking. I'm saying that one group I can be curt with are the people who call my home and disturb me. Whether it's one minute or 30, it's an obnoxious way of doing business. (And unless you're calling for charity, there are no sacred cows--including college fundraising.)

Finally, it's not a "depth of anger." You asked the question and I answered. Please don't tell me this is one of those blogs where you put a controversial question out, then when you get someone disagreeing with you you accuse them of overreacting. That's no way to get to an interesting debate going.

Caitlin Servilio said...

Sorry I didn't recognize the Seinfeld reference. That's why I thought you sounded angry--because "Just post your phone number etc" sounds like an angry thing to say (now that I remember the skit, I recall that Jerry sounded pretty angry when he said it). Now, of course, I realize your comment was pleasant and I apologize if I inadvertently accused you of overreacting. Your perspective is entirely valid.

I'm not saying college fundraising is a "sacred cow" at all and I don't deny that it is a trifle annoying, but no more so than an infomercial repeated 25 times during a primetime tv show or a flickering Target ad in the Metro. And it's not entirely depraved either--donations to AU go to things like buying more books for our library and constructing a new building for communication students. A lot of people do opt out of donating, but some people are more than happy to--which, from an economic perspective, makes the whole venture worth it. What I'm suggesting is that perhaps telemarketers aren't evil fiends trying to disturb you and forcibly take money from your unwilling grasp. They're just people like any other people and don't necessarily deserve to be the one group that society says we can be guiltlessly curt to.

Anonymous said...

Luckily in this age of advanced technology, it is often possible to identify the number of a caller before a call is answered.
To my knowledge, it has also long been an option to simply not pick up one's phone, to change one's phone ring to a less irksome tone, or to turn the phone and/or the ringer off during periods in which one prefers not to be disturbed.
Thus, it is poor form to blame a telemarketer for one's own choice to pick up the phone when one is otherwise engaged. And a simple, "thanks for your call; I'm not interested," preceding the click of hanging up costs the answerer approximately 1.4 seconds of his or her valuable time.

Anonymous said...

Also, don't forget "please take me off your list."

Caitlin Servilio said...

Thank you, you have clearly and succinctly summed up something I was trying, with little success, to get across.

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