Yesterday was election day in Washington, where I’m living these days. I usually don’t get campaign calls because, as a young person, I don’t fit the standard profile for a likely voter. On Monday, though, I got a surprise phone call from a campaign volunteer urging my to get my ballot in (I did) and vote against a domestic partnership measure in Washington (I didn’t). I’m guessing the caller I heard from was not a volunteer. I could here the strain in her voice–it’s an unmistakable sound if you know it. A call center worker’s voice has this tortured quality to it, a product of florescent lighting and brain cells offing themselves to escape the boredom.

I have worked for a lot of call centers over the years. My first real job was doing telephone surveys for a political polling firm in Oklahoma. I’ve done cold calls for an insurance agent, I’ve made thousands of phone calls recruiting volunteers for campaigns, and I’ve taken thousands of phone calls reporting car accidents for a different insurance company. I *get* what it’s like to work in a call center. Here’s how a typical day goes:

  • 5:00pm: Log-in to the automated system that keeps track of your phone time down to the second. Make sure to go to the bathroom first, because once you’re logged-in you can’t leave your headset until your federally mandated 15 minute break three hours later.
  • 5:01pm:   The automated computer dialer connects your first call. It’s almost definitely an answering machine.
  • 5:02pm: Surreptitiously sneak your book out of your bag and into your lap. With good concentration you can get threw two or three pages before you have to actually talk to someone.
  • 5:07pm: Your first angry answer. If you’re lucky, they hang up before yelling at you. If you’re really lucky, they use offensive language and you get to hang up on them.
  • 5:15pm: Your first confused, elderly answer. Either due to dementia or hearing loss, poor old Mrs. Beale has no idea what you’re talking about, but she’s also too lonely to hang up on you. This conversation will last until exactly the last question on the survey, when Matlock will come on and she wanders away.
  • 5:16pm–6:45pm: Read a paragraph out of your book, talk to an angry middle-aged person or a confused elderly person, repeat.
  • 6:46pm: Manager spots your book. Sheepishly put it away and wonder whether or not you’ll be downsized.
  • 6:58pm: Particularly rude respondent puts you in an even worse mood. Begin smiling into the phone while you give your spiel to hide the seething hostility in your voice.
  • 7:10pm: Entertain yourself by leaving random movie quotes on strangers’ answering machines.
  • 7:14pm: Jesus…still 16 minutes till your break.
  • 7:30pm: Break time! Buy a diet coke and try not to make eye contact with your coworkers–you don’t have the emotional strength to see something so pitiful right now.
  • 7:45pm: Back to the auto-dialer. First call up is invariably the worst of the evening. You’re working so hard to contain the seething that tiny blood vessels in your eyes start popping. Careful…if you go blind you’re fired.
  • 8:11pm: Guy answers with an obviously fake Indian accent and starts talking about random nonsense. He thinks his clever prank is getting you back for interrupting his night, but really it’s the most amusing thing you’ve heard in four hours.
  • 8:53pm: Seven minutes before your shift ends, you get a doddering old man on the phone. Disaster. You can’t leave mid-call, which means you’re stuck at work until the old guy finally completes the survey. Hopefully he won’t take so long you miss you bus.
  • 9:07pm: Call with the old guy ends just to early to justify rounding up to an extra quarter of an hour, and just too late to make it to your bus on time. Have fun standing in the rain for an extra half hour. At least you don’t have to make any more phone calls…today.

Fortunately, my call center days are probably behind me. Please remember, though, the next time you get an irritating phone call, that the person on the other line has a much more soul-crushing, mind-numbing job than you do. It’s not their fault. And the “Do Not Call” list doesn’t apply to political communications.