My former therapist told me once that helplessness was the most toxic of human emotions. I didn't know then that he was talking about AT&T.
Yesterday I waited over 6 hours for AT&T to come to my office and work on my DSL line. Having waited forever on other occasions, I hoped that this time would be different. I was switching my service over to Sonic.net. In order to do this, however, AT&T had to come out and change some wiring. I cancelled my afternoon. The wait began. They were supposed to be there at 11 a.m., then noon, then 2:45. They finally came at 5:30. No one at AT&T, of course, could tell me anything.
Unfortunately, as is true for many people with similar tales of woe, AT&T intersects with a vital part of our lives. I need the Internet. I depend on it. I finally decided to switch carriers because AT&T's DSL hadn't been working for 10 days. AT&T would schedule a repair appointment and the guy wouldn't show. One time, a service guy told his dispatcher that my building was locked, while all the while I was sitting in the lobby by a front door that was propped wide open. One office at AT&T doesn't know what the other is doing. No one is really in charge. Whichever department you first call is invariably the wrong one. The customer service people are in Texas while the actual dispatcher and repair technicians are local. And the customer service department has no power to influence the technicians. The technicians of course, are scheduled too tightly. No one is accountable. There's no one to complain to, to pressure, to beg, to resolve the problem. Everyone I speak to is, him or herself, just a low-paid worker. And their supervisors act off a script, without the ability or willingness to really solve problems.
Understanding that the problem is in "the system" doesn't really help. Here's what it feels like: AT&T has the power to fix my Internet and make me happy. They don't. They won't. They don't care about me.
Of course, that's ridiculous. It's not personal. Unfortunately, our minds don't work that way. We live in a personal world, not a generic one. We get mad at the reservation agent, the desk clerk, the customer service representative. We experience the driver who unthinkingly cuts us off on the road as committing an aggressive act, the people in the security line at the airport who are moving too slowly as personally affronting us.
So, I found myself hating everyone at AT&T, fantasizing that I could maim or otherwise punish whoever was responsible for leaving me hanging, waiting, helplessly dependent in my office. Killing off the cause of my angst would, I imagined, end it. Of course, such a daydream quickly foundered, not because I knew I wouldn't really maim anyone, but because I didn't know who to maim! No one person was responsible. Therein lies the source of the suffering. We're in need of help and care but no one is responsible for providing it. The suffering of helplessness probably harkens back to childhood when we were objectively -- and painfully -- quite dependent on our caretakers. We all grow up making our peace with helplessness in some way or another. One person becomes controlling, another anxiously vigilant, another person pretends that nothing at all matters, and still another is depressively passive.
Behind all these strategies is the need to escape the irreducible fact that there are profound ways in which we are all helpless. We can't make someone love us. We can't maintain perfect health. We can't control the weather. We can't avoid loss. We are subject to the vicissitudes of the economic marketplace, natural disasters, and to serendipity itself.
That's the psychology of it, but it's not the whole of the story, not by a long shot. The real story is that many of these situations of helplessness are not necessary. They are the function of the greed inherent in the various bureaucracies that govern our lives, bureaucracies that answer to needs other than ours. If they spent the money to set up and staff more security checkpoints at airports, lines would go faster. If we supported mass transit over automobiles, we'd have fewer traffic jams and cleaner air. If corporations like AT&T made customer service and technical support an overriding priority, people like me wouldn't suffer as objects of neglect and indifference. All this would take money. It would take extensive training. It would mean rewarding workers for their people skills rather than raw efficiency. It would also fly in the face of the bottom line ethos of American business.
Still, it's possible to do, and possible even within a market-based economy. Research has demonstrated that when consumers feel recognized and respected, they feel better and buy more. Consider the analog in the medical arena. It has long been known that when patients feel understood by their nurses and doctors, they're more compliant with treatment and get better faster. People want to be seen and treated as whole people and they respond positively when they are. Haven't you had the occasional experience of dealing with a customer service, reservation or technical support agent who treated you like a human being, who got involved in trying to help you or solve your problem? Didn't you fall in love with that person?
To come full circle: While I was waiting for AT&T for those 6 hours, a fellow from Sonic named Andrew called AT&T and me every half hour to try to track down information and to reassure me that he was on my side. He said to me that morning, "Michael, I'm gonna' take point on this today." I'm not gay but I wanted to marry him, not because he guaranteed a solution but because he wanted to help me and wanted to do so in a manner that was highly personal and particular to me.
AT&T isn't the only bureaucracy that treats customers like things or is inefficient in its customer service. And such problems didn't begin with the Internet. In fact, I remember a very funny Nichols and May comedy routine in 1960 that involved a desperate man trying to get help from -- well, unfortunately, it was from AT&T, known in that era, simply, as "Ma Bell." So, no, it's not just a recent phenomenon. But to the extent that our lives are increasingly dominated by technology, we are increasingly subject to snafus, dropped calls, phone queues, and either inadequate or non-existent technical support around products and services that feel essential.
So, yes, it's true that we need to learn to better tolerate certain types of helplessness. But I see no reason why we can't also demand that companies that provide the products, services and infrastructure upon which our modern lives depend make simple human values like recognition, respect, care, and loyalty a crucial part of their side of the bargain.