Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why Customer Service is not for Me

Incoming Call
I think it’s the phones. Possibly in a past life I received some very bad news over the phone, or was beaten over the head by one, or lived in a world where I was a small tunneling nocturnal mammal and the sound of a ringing phone was the attack cry of a large merciless bird of prey with a predilection for -- me. I have never liked telephones. Unlike letters and their modern equivalent, email, phone calls are hard to ignore; they demand to be heard, acknowledged and answered whether you were expecting them or not. They are the bullies and brats of the communication world.

Yes, I know, life, both private and professional, must involve some amount of engagement with this odious invention. Sometimes a well-timed call can lift your spirits, bringing welcome information, inspiration or consolation. Sometimes problems are resolved. Sometimes lives are changed for the better. But mostly, when my home phone rings, it is someone wanting something or wanting me to want something, and the insistence and imposition on my attention, with impeccable timing, comes at exactly the worst time for me to give it with anything but resentment, impatience and aversion.

 Creatures Who Live in Quiet Places

In many ways I am still that small tunneling nocturnal creature of my past life. When I arrived in this life as a full-grown human expected to lead my life above ground in broad daylight, you can imagine my dismay. It took many years to master the art of defense and disguise, watching and imitating the creatures I was forced to live and work among. Unfortunately, this art was long in the making, and not quite reliable to perform at its peak all the time. This is why I chose to become a writer, a photographer and a library assistant, which have to be three of the best ways to justify a life led on the sidelines, in the background, in quiet places with minimal company and chaos.

Well, things change. The last time I checked, library work, in all but a few ancient strongholds, stopped being about the hushed handling of  books in secluded spaces and moved on to corporate structures, cubicle clusters, information technology and something called metadata, which lives inside computers and is exactly as cosy to curl up with as it sounds. And there are no wealthy patrons these days for writers or artists who just want to hang up a permanent “Do Not Disturb” sign and make stuff and think stuff in peace and quiet, my endless quest for which led me to leave the library world three years ago and trade the big city for a very small one. But livings must be earned, and when the only available job is in a busy customer service office, this little mouse, quite literally, answered the call.

 Stay Low and Seek the Ground

At first it wasn’t so bad. I overcame my natural cringe response and communicated in a friendly and helpful manner with every voice on the other end of the ringing raptor. Not one of them caused my death, although many of them wanted things, and many of them had bad news that required attention. When I was able to go home repeatedly uneaten after a day of surviving several of these interruptions to the other part of my job, entering data (not sure if it is of the meta variety, maybe only ivy league libraries get to cultivate that special stuff), I felt triumphant, if exhausted. As a former prey animal, I am resigned to life being more often about avoiding catastrophe than actually acquiring or achieving anything fulfilling or meaningful, but still, after a few days like this, it seemed a bit much.

The raptor must have sensed my sense of security and resented my continued survival. The cries increased from day to day. Reinforcements were sent in the form of call gangs, as callers conspired to call all at the same time, somehow knowing I was on other calls, or on voicemail retrieving calls that came in while I was on other calls. Then came a special breed of email and faxes that mimic the urgency and unavoidability of phone calls. The paperwork on my desk languished, and Post-it notes scrawled in hasty desperate handwriting usually associated with “help me the killer is in the house” notes slipped under doors, collected like bones outside the lair of the raptor. I could feel myself shrinking and my sincerity getting thinner as my chest tightened with every gracious conversation. A small mammalian voice inside my head kept saying “tunnel! tunnel!”

 Out the Other Side

So I did the closest thing available to a modern day human. I made a plan. I collected lists and schedules to surround myself with like soft but durable nesting materials. I assembled the necessary provisions for some self-imposed lean times. I summoned the very best of my defenses and disguises, and after one particularly rapacious week, I found the courage and wisdom to give notice. The thing most people don’t know about quiet subtle little creatures is that they can carry and move things many times their weight, and due to a happy blend of persistence, perception and patience, usually last a lot longer than their enemies, who use themselves up swooping, attacking and puffing up their plumage to seem larger than they really are.

I wrote this post before I gave notice, and I am publishing it after my last day in customer service. Writing is a lot like tunneling, part of the slow steady process of making sense of circumstances both overwhelming and seemingly inescapable. It enabled me to envision and then to be the person on the other side of a bad situation, having survived it. Of course the Universe has a great sense of humor and an even greater sense of irony. The day I planned to give notice was one of the busiest and craziest I had ever experienced. I never had a chance to raise my voice and make my news known. Instead, it happened the following week, which is to say this morning, via email, thanks to a timely case of laryngitis that would have made it impossible to answer or make any phone calls, professional or otherwise. I decided to stay home today. And then I decided to stay home for good. In all senses of the word. 

 Safe Harbor

Farewell to the longest twelve weeks of my life. I am now in new territory safe and surrounded only by what I need until I once again move on. I need to locate new resources soon, but I am not worried. I'm too busy listening to the quiet.


  1. life can be very intrusive at times.
    i like the human voice..i do not love emails,however convenient.
    when i do not want to be interrupted..i turn the phone volume off.
    quiet....it soothes the soul.....my soul has been "frayed"..3 grandkids living with me!!
    quiet...this August,from 8 am -2:30pm...all 3 in school full time....i crave quiet.
    enjoy your quiet!!!!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ann! The human voice can indeed be beautiful to hear when it is someone you care for, someone you choose to share time with, whose words and company make life better. I suppose all forms of communication can be irritating when used in the wrong ways. I wrote a post a while back about the lost art of letter writing, which seems to be the perfect blend of solitary reflection and communication - you get the best of both worlds - human "voice" and quiet too!

    I hope you find the quiet you crave and that life soon begins to be a little less "fraying" on the soul for you.

  3. I hear you. And this post resonates with every fibre of my being. Solitude is an essential for me, as is quiet. And one of the ways I achieve it is to get up very early and welcome the dawn on my own. No television, no radio, no voices. And if I am forced to interact with many people at once my brain unravels. The garden helps, quiet helps, the cats help. Becoming a hermit has real charm.
    I hope you find a safe way to re-engage with the world - just as much as you need to, and no more. Sending hugs and love (and both empathy and sympathy as well).

    1. Dear EC, your empathy and sympathy are truly appreciated and deeply felt. The early morning hours are so precious, precisely because most people sleep through them, and those who wake to enjoy them are like us, creatures of peace and quiet. I used to take long walks with the rising sun as my only company. When I was at my library-turned-office job at Harvard I opted for the earliest schedule just so I would have an hour alone before the rest of the large staff would start to arrive along with increased noise and stress levels. That job now seems peaceful and tranquil by comparison! At this latest job, the staff was small, but everyone arrived at once at 8am sharp with a big flurry of conversation and urgency and the phones would begin ringing immediately with people on the other end whose problems needed addressing and personalities accommodating. I kept being told how good I was at dealing with customers on the phone, and I guess I was, but as you say, after a few consecutive calls, my brain was unraveling.

      I have just the one cat (she wouldn't have it any other way!)and now I have some quiet again. Maybe one day I'll have a house with a garden and a better balance of inside-outside engagement. It's a worthy goal! It may just be that I need to go forth and do battle again and then retreat, on and off, to sustain this household. For now I am thoroughly enjoying being a hermit!

      Thanks again for your heartfelt words, and sending you my love, fellow welcomer of the dawn.