My official job title was “telephone interviewer,” and like all managers of people doing unglamorous work, management was obsessed with that title. They emphasized that we weren’t telemarketers, because we weren’t doing anything as dirty as sales. No, in fact, we would be using the power of the telephone for a greater good ― for science!
My abusive boyfriend had pressured me into applying. I hated phones, but my job at the dollar store paid minimum wage. This job still paid poorly, but not as bad, and they promised regularly scheduled raises for anyone who “stuck with it.”
That’s how I came to give surveys over the phone for a living, and how it ended up exposing everything that was wrong with my life.
The call center was filled with noise ― ringing, but also the voices of the “interviewers,” each trying to sound professional and convincing. There were no headsets, only ’90s-era office phones attached to big boxy computers. By the end of a shift, my phone would be warm from my ear.
Work started in the evening. We called other time zones and went until midnight. We used fake names to protect our real identities. To stop people from slacking, everything was tightly regimented, and the computers automatically took it out of your break time if you were “idle” for more than 30 seconds. That included bathroom breaks, and it was common to see people running to and from the restrooms to avoid losing their lunch breaks.
The rest of the time, the automatic dialer ― a program that generated random numbers and dialed them for us ― controlled everything. We had strict instructions to only let the phone ring three times before hanging up. The repetitiveness induced a dreamlike state. Then, a human voice would startle me.
“Hello! My name is Franklin Washington, and I’m calling on behalf of a major cable television provider. This isn’t a sales call, I’d like to ask you a few questions...”
Most people just hung up. Company policy was that if they hung up before they heard the entire introduction, they didn’t understand what they were refusing. Those numbers went back into the queue to be called again at a later date. The only way you could get us to never call again was to listen to the whole intro, then say “I’m not interested.” That, or you could cuss the interviewer out.
Then, rarely, I gave actual surveys.
The surveys covered a lot of ground. The one on behalf of a “major cable television network,” which I was never allowed to name, included questions (all showing up automatically on my computer screen) about specific shows, but also about specific characters on each show.
Then there was a survey about alcohol and drug use. I asked a series of increasingly invasive questions, about everything from your drinking habits to whether you had ever been homeless or sexually abused. They were looking for correlations, but I can’t tell you what they found because we never saw the data.
The worst was the survey on sudden infant death syndrome. For that one, we didn’t cold-call randomly generated numbers. Instead, the list came from insurance companies’ records of people who had recently given birth. That’s right ― I called exhausted new parents and tried to get them to answer questions about their babies’ sleep. They were unfailingly angry at me, and I didn’t blame them.
Once, a woman shriek-cried at me that her baby had been stillborn, and I was a monster for calling her. Shaking, I selected the box for “infant loss” on my computer and assured her we wouldn’t be calling again. Before I could process my guilt, the phone was ringing again.
The rigid rules meant you could hardly say anything that wasn’t on the screen in front of you, but you were also supposed to come across as human and friendly in order to keep folks on the line. Only a few people were actually good at this, and turnover was high. As the people I was hired in with started to disappear, I realized why the bosses could so confidently offer a predetermined raise every few months. Most people would never make it.
At work, I existed in a constant state of tension, calling strangers who often yelled at me. At home, my boyfriend’s emotional abuse was slowly becoming less veiled. Sometimes we would have friends over, always his friends, and they would brag about particularly nasty things they’d said to “telemarketers,” and then look at me meaningfully.
One night I called nothing but Hawaii and Alaska numbers, and half the respondents answered with a hearty “Aloha.” Another night, I had to ask an 88-year-old woman if she’d ever been hit by a spouse or romantic partner, and I held my breath while she said “Yes.” I felt like I was going to vomit as I forced myself to ask the follow-up question: Had the abuse occurred in the past month? I heard the woman hold the phone away from her mouth and shout, so that I could hear her and so could anyone else in her home. “No! He’s in a wheelchair now, so he can’t get me no more!” I had nightmares about her for months.
Shortly after my three-month raise, the stomach pains began. My whole abdomen would seize up, and it would take all of my denial to get through the day. I had a performance review where a supervisor ― the same one who’d conducted the mass interview when I was hired ― lectured me that my response rate wasn’t high enough. I reminded him that he had always told us we couldn’t control who responded and who didn’t, and our best bet was not to get emotionally invested. He looked at me coolly and said: “Doesn’t matter. You need to do better.”
Then, one night I was giving a fairly benign survey about how satisfied people were with their health insurance. Part of it required that I take down each respondent’s employment data, and the woman on the phone said she was an archaeologist. Breaking the rules, I exclaimed: “Oh! I studied archaeology in college!” She was nice and pleasant to talk to, and the survey was long. While I was on the phone, I almost let myself believe I was having a conversation, rather than reading an exhaustive list of prepared questions. At the end, she said: “You seem like a bright kid, Franklin. You’ve got a big future ahead of you.”
I wanted to cry. I wanted to apologize for giving her a fake name. I wanted to ask her what the hell I should do with my life. Instead I thanked her for her time, and I hung up, and then the phone started ringing again.
That was the moment the stomach cramps became unbearable. Buckled over in pain, I told my supervisor I must have eaten something bad, and I left. The next day was worse, and I couldn’t make it to work.
When I finally went to the doctor, endless rounds of tests only brought back a vague verdict of “something stress-related.” The fact was that a lifetime of untreated anxiety disorder, three years of living with an abuser, and three months of doing a thankless and freakishly stressful job had all caught up with me at the same time.
I never went back, and it took me years to build a life that I didn’t totally hate. But I still think about my time as Franklin Washington... every time I get a particularly annoying phone call.