It’s a strange fact about the call-centre that you can speak to people all day, your vocal chords straining and at the end of the day your throat dry as a fine French wine, all without actually having a conversation with anyone.
Conversation is simply rendered impossible in the busy times. For instance in the now legendary build up to Christmas the office was full of new faces. We knew each others names from when we answered a call, we knew every crevice and feature of each others voices; the pitches, tones, and lilts, but beyond that we knew nothing of eachother we were a room of faceless strangers. Communication was made impossible by ‘the phones’ demanding total subservience with their one-ring auto-answer set up force-feeding us from the beginning to the end of our shifts.
As soon as it gets quieter conversation begins to slowly creep back like a weed finding its way through a layer of asphalt. Still though it is difficult; the room arranged so we sit in rows and as we are immobile hooked to our phones via our headsets we can only speak to the two or if we are lucky three people in our vicinity. We also adopt strange mannerisms. Like the Lancashire mill workers who supposedly developed an exaggerated way of mouthing words and saying things twice ‘I said, I said’ to compensate for the unrelenting noise of the machinery the operated we have had to adapt. At any second we can be stopped mid-conversation, or called away when we are listening to someone by the interjection of the phone. In normal circumstances breaking off a conversation when someone is mid-speech is a serious faux-pas, so as soon as our phone rings we pause, look at our phone or computer screen, then return our glance to the person who was speaking to us as we begin speaking to the caller. The person stopped mid-sentance then hastily searches for a few words with which to prematurely conclude their thoughts before our full attention is taken by the call. Because of these limitations our conversations are stilted and superficial rarely delving beneath the surface.
So why am I pondering all this? Well as it has been quiet (the end of January/beginning of Feb being a lull period in the mail order industry) we have recently been doing some off phone work. Pretty menial jobs that need doing round the place, envelope stuffing, that kind of thing. Far from resenting this diversion we have welcomed it. It has been a joy to be off the phones so we can have proper conversations without the spectre of the phone cutting in. The effect of this has been dramatic; within the space of half an hour I’d learned more about a person than I had in the past year of sharing an office with them.
Somehow this left me feeling a little less alienated and a little more connected to the people around me. Strange how something invented to aid communication can get in its way so much.