I’ve been yelled at by my share of angry people. After two years spent answering a customer assistance hotline for an online furniture store, I became accustomed to taking abuse from strangers and to apologizing for things that were not related to anything I could have ever done. During those two years, I found myself apologizing for bad weather in a remote part of the country that delayed someone’s package delivery. I apologized for the shoddy workmanship of products I’d never seen. I apologized for FedEx’s kicking some poor soul’s box down the stairs. Because I’m a sensitive soul, I did feel genuinely sorry for most of these callers and their frustrating situations. But the insanity of these apologies was not lost on me.
During the various calls I received, I was flirted with, called names, cursed out, threatened. I was screamed at by a woman whose daughter was going into labor in the next room. During the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, I spoke with someone who I became convinced was evil incarnate; after being told that the product he wanted to order was recently out of stock, he suggested that people in New Orleans who might have ordered that same product probably didn’t need it right now, so could one of theirs be re-routed to him? I ask you. I endured lengthy, exhausting phone calls during which I acted as a complete stranger’s therapist, tutor, confidante, or nemesis. It was a difficult, thankless job. Fortunately for my company, I was good at talking down extremely irate people so that by the end of our conversations, I had usually managed to gain their trust. If I had been working on commission based on how many people I coaxed out of psychotic rages, I could have retired in a year. As it was, I was not paid very much. But anyway. Best not to dwell on the past.
This afternoon I was on the other end of a call to customer service, which was bad enough. What made it worse was that I recognized the tricks of the trade as they were being used against me. “I know you’re just telling me that you understand my situation because that’s how you’re trained to respond to angry helpless people,” I wanted to snap. “I know you’re just putting me on hold because you can’t bear to talk to me right now and you want to go to the break room to grab a Danish. I know you’re telling me you’re going to go talk to someone about my situation, but really you’re just going to sit there for a few minutes because there’s nothing to be said on your end, and you just need me to think you’re trying to help. I know that the minute you hang up with me, you’ll immediately get another call from someone else just like me or worse and I know how much that sucks. I know!”
Finally, I couldn’t stand it. “I used to work in a call-center,” I started saying, as I was forced to call back again and again and representatives continued to transfer me back and forth before I managed to speak to a higher-up (and the higher up people get, the less easy it is to fluster them, and the better they are at repeating the party line, and the less likely they are to say things like, ‘I understand’). “I know that this situation is not your fault and that you’re doing your best to help me. I’m just getting frustrated and I’m sorry I’m taking it out on you.” Everything I said was a cliché that I could remember hearing; every response I got was just another calculated move on the customer service checkerboard, leading to an inevitable check-mate. Sometimes it’s helpful knowing how the process works from the other side, but sometimes it’s really not.