Working in a call center was a completely demoralizing and emotionally numbing experience.
My first day “live” on the phones, my headset plugged in like a tether or leash, I kind of lost it.
My first call was a tag team duo, a drunken middle-aged couple, who were taking turns shouting and slurring curse words at me.
Suddenly, I forgot every single damn thing I had learned in training.
“Your phone isn’t working? Your payment didn’t go through???”
Rather than sounding like I was just parroting back their statements in a reassuring way, indicating that I got the message loud and clear, thus securing their confidence in me that I indeed understood what the situation was and that they were in expert customer service hands — my voice sounded shrill, shaky. I was losing ground fast.
There’s just something about customer care over the phone and the absence of face to face contact that gives people a special kind of ammunition to really lay into you.
That call was a blur.
I think they hung up on me after an excruciating series of minutes which felt more like time had stood nightmarishly still while I proved I had no fucking idea what I was doing.
I threw off my headset, jabbed a code into the phone so I wouldn’t get another call, and strode across the room as fast as I could without looking like something was wrong. I had to get across the room as fast as I could without attracting the attention of my fellow new hires and the stoney faced, sneering OG veterans.
Across the room was where I found the trainer. In a jumble of words that probably didn’t make any sense, I relayed my message: I needed to get the hell out of that room for a few minutes, to gather myself.
It was written all over my face. He didn’t hesitate to give me the go ahead. Almost falling down over myself to get out of the building, practically kicking down the door to the outside world, I lit a cigarette and sucked back on it hard as the tears just came rolling down.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
I was in the throes of an all out hyperventilating cry. That really embarrassing and kind of scary-for-other-people-to-witness, type of cry. My face had flushed red and was totally drenched.
This kind of crying you can’t hide, even after you wash your face. The evidence (red, puffy skin) just stays for like an hour… and I didn’t want the assholes upstairs to know I had been crying.
At that moment, they were all assholes. Everyone in the whole world was an asshole.
But that was my first day.
I actually stayed for another year and a half after that, and in my time in a call center, I’ve heard some sick things.
For example, a fellow coworker of mine was instructed, step by step, on how to fist herself.
On another occasion, a customer had wished stomach cancer on her.
Oddly enough, she was the one who had perfected a sugary sweet, baby like voice; what she called her “customer service voice”. She used that voice on customers in an effort to render them silent and to actually facilitate a productive conversation that might go somewhere. Sometimes it worked, other times it made the customers even angrier, and that’s where the stomach cancer wishers came in.
She could switch from her regular voice to that Customer Service voice of hers without missing a beat, or batting an eyelash even though they were several octaves apart. The first time I heard it, I thought “Oh God, how faaaaake” but very quickly I learned, she was on to something. She knew what she was doing, she was smart. She became a sister in arms and I grew to have a lot of respect for her.
A common, everyday sort of posture for me at work was this:
sitting so slouched down into my swivel chair, with the pneumatic adjustment set to the lowest height, neck craned, eyes half closed, fingers warping and bending a paper clip I’d found hanging around a desk. Often, I would subconsciously push one pointed end of that pulled apart paper clip into the palm of my hand, leaving tiny little pinprick marks. I don’t know why. The slight pain that it induced must have been some effort of mine to take my mind off of what was happening to me. Some kind of bizarre, crazed comfort.
At one point, I had been “promoted” to a Team Lead position, which just meant that I now exclusively talked to the angriest of people, the ones so far gone that one would have to question their sanity and wonder if they had a mental breakdown at some point during their 15 minute hold and transfer from Cairo.
I had to sometimes devote a rather large chunk of time to just calming these people down before we could get down to business. To say it was ‘mentally draining’ would be an understatement. Every time a new call came in, I had to brace myself for such hysterical hatred and ugliness, and after some time, nothing would surprise me.
This wasn’t a triumph, this was a side effect of having to adapt oneself to a soul sucking job.
But I learn, for better or worse, that I could grow a tougher skin. This was definitely a valuable lesson.
I learned that a tough skin wasn’t something that one was either born with, or not. Throughout my life, I had been told I need to grow a tougher skin, but I always thought, hey that’s just not me. I’m not like that. I can’t be like that. But it worked! and I was proud of the fact that I proven myself wrong.
I also met a handful of people who truly made my time in the call center bearable. Together we shared cynical laughter, smirks, tears of frustration and eye locked silence that meant more than words could convey — a strong bond over things that could have broken each and every one of us, had we not a good support system (i.e. each other). I made some funny memes during moments of downtime. I pushed my coffee consumption to new levels and had simultaneously created my own immunity to caffeine.
I still stay in touch with some of my call center comrades. Some still work there, and are clawing for a way out some days. Other days, their drive to get out for dear life is more muted, their day-to-day responsibilities more manageable.
Some days, it’s just a job, like any old job, in a city where very few of those exist.