Reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace while on my lunch break, I was inspired by one of the sections to write about my own strictly anonymous place of work. The section in question referred to the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where you can “acquire many exotic new facts” about drug addiction, rehabilitation and the human race in general. This piece is the same deal, but with telephone-based market research.
If, at any point in your life, you suffer the ignominy of working in a market research call centre, whether due to desperation, laziness or perverse substitutive self-flagellation, you will at least gain access to a wealth of singular information occluded from more fortunate individuals. You will learn that the common perception that most call centres are situated overseas – in Mumbai par exemple – is largely derived from the substantial majority of accented ethnic minorities working in UK call centres, many of whom speak putatively inadequate English. That the ethnic minorities are accompanied in swathes by other minorities, notably homosexuals. That, while this results in plenty of unsurprisingly positive transcultural interaction and gratefully little in the way of inappropriate transracial banter, it also has the effect of reducing any enlightening interpersonal exchanges to near imperceptible bubbles in the cellulate colourless sludge that day-to-day existence more or less perfectly represents.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: the 2D perspective does not really do it justice
Or, for instance, that it is possible for certain individuals to speak at such an obscene volume for an entire 12-hour shift that other workers frequently comment to their faces that they are ‘too fucking loud’, while more softly-spoken interviewers are capable of developing a sore throat by talking continuously at a tolerable volume until 11:30am. That it possible to justify taking a toilet break five minutes before the end of a shift by explaining to yourself that if you managed to lure someone into doing a survey, you might develop slight but honestly bearable vesical discomfort towards the end. That by drinking an excessive amount of water throughout the day, you can waste an awful lot of time urinating and refilling the 0.25L plastic cups that are placed on top of the water dispenser. That attractive women always get promoted ahead of unattractive women, and that, most of the time, unattractive women are not even considered for a promotion. That senior management teams are composed almost entirely of laddish men, or men that maintain the pretence of being laddish, and that it in no way matters whether they are attractive or not. That transcending the boundary of attractive woman and laddish man, for example by being a good-looking (if a bit dykey) cleavage-displaying lesbian with a loud mouth and vulgar sense of humour, will also earn you a promotion. That some people are just extremely likeable regardless of how many negative characteristics they have. That the mental effort exerted doing the same thing over and over again all day greatly exceeds that of going through the most complicated theoretical processes for a considerably longer duration of time.
That everybody doodles, an awful lot.
That most people’s doodles are either overt surrealism, faux vorticism or violent cartoonish pop art a la Roy Lichtenstein. That a perhaps unremarkable proportion of people draw themselves, Lichtenstein-esque, with expressions of exasperation or actual unmistakeable pain. That the people who draw naked women are not necessarily the ones you’d expect to. That if you complied an enormous collage of all the doodles composed in all the world’s call centres, it would be such a damning indictment of modern civilisation that people would frankly avert their eyes and pretend that it did not exist.
That people are prepared to bullshit about absolutely anything. That secretaries, by and large, have the most appalling telephone manner. That you can ask someone detailed questions on a subject to the point of tedium without having any knowledge whatsoever of that subject, and without them even realising it. That this aspect of your job is inherently flawed to the extent that it undermines every single word you utter. That the smaller a company is, the more likely it is to be run by pleasant individuals. That it is very rare to find a company that does not have a head office and, even those that don’t, direct you to it when you mention you want to do a survey with them. That gay men can occupy senior positions alongside attractive women and laddish men, though it is unclear whether this is due to the potential for a last-gasp-end-of-the-Christmas-party-I-am-inebriated-and-fucking-desperate blow job or because the world has moved on from the latent homophobia of the recent past. That senior members of staff have as little respect or loyalty towards the company as you do, despite being paid considerably more. That companies have little offices where nobody goes except the IT support staff, and that the IT support staff never come out to provide even the most urgent IT support. That colleagues who would never normally speak to you will take a moment to compliment your mug with a picture of a donkey on it. That 90% of conversations started at work are about work. That this is the case no matter how much everyone absolutely despises work and would rather talk about pretty much anything else.
Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (1963)
That people from Ireland are actually, genuinely really nice. That people from Scotland are generally pleasant, but those from the North are elderly and dour, mostly due to clinical depression, chronic illness, or a combination of the two. That Welsh people are rarer than you might think, and hearing the Welsh language over the telephone makes you feel simultaneously anxious and inadequate. That your company indirectly explaining, via a survey, that washing your hands “thoroughly” involves washing them for a minimum of 20 seconds means that you now, just while at work, wash your hands for no less than 20 seconds, even when the last 10 give or take 3 involve nothing more than rinsing already clean hands with warm water. That your own voice is exceptionally annoying but all your colleagues voices are considerably more so. That some people take market research seriously, and that this attitude actually precludes their progress in the industry.
That most people are incapable of following simple instructions, and that this is not down to a heightened sense of individualism but rather because they cannot, or refuse to, understand why the instructions are there in the place. That no matter how old you are, you can still find playing around with hand sanitiser hilarious. That as a low-level employee, you do not aspire to earn a promotion but instead invent higher positions you could feasibly occupy that do not as yet exist. That these positions would in fact be a superfluous level of bureaucracy that everyone would be much better off without. That you would fire infinitely more people given the chance than is probably even legal. That some words become exponentially more difficult to pronounce the more frequently you say them. That girls can make themselves look at least 200% hotter by dyeing their hair pink but this can also backfire disastrously. That if you dislike someone, you dislike them more when you find out they have an identical twin. That, unless you have literally just stepped off the bus/train/car/plane into a brand new city, you will know someone else who works at your call centre, and that you will most likely expend far too much energy pretending that you don’t.
That casual employees work more, on average, than proper employees despite not having to, and that this is a result of the minimum wage being quite staggeringly low, particularly when you are sub-21. That certain individuals perversely manage a capital city property portfolio and also work in a call centre. That it is possible to manage an capital city property portfolio during your break times in a regular 9-5 job. That if someone tells you a survey is going to take 10 minutes, it can anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. That some employees are tolerated despite being incompetent, distracting and lazy simply because they have worked there a long time. That these employees are frequently promoted to nominally higher-level but noticeably more straightforward positions so they can be tolerated without causing any more damage than is necessary. That the objectivity of statistical data is an abstract and fanciful illusion. That unnatural syntax, as in syntax that people would never use as opposed to incorrect syntax that people regularly use, sticks out like a sore thumb.
That pretending not to know who your office manager is when you pass him in the corridor makes you feel like a real person again. That showing no deference to anybody is vitally important. That it is possible to piss standing up and send a text message at the same time, and that finding someone actually doing this worries you deeply. That, unless prompted, nobody “tends to” agree or disagree with anything. That children are infinitely more fun to talk to than adults, even when the conversations are scripted and, therefore, exactly the same. That virtually all companies use the same 8-10 pieces of bland proto-jazz/clichéd classical on-hold music, and even the frankly bizarre use of abysmal 90s pop music, i.e. All Saints, is a breath of fresh air. That, increasingly, companies are replacing on-hold music with their own adverts that they more often than not charge you to listen to by virtue of expensive 0845 phone numbers. That businesses in general are run by people who lack self-awareness. That it is possible to clarify something by repeating the same exact words over and over again. That most people know almost nothing about the companies they work for, even when it is an integral part of their probably-made-up-anyway elaborate job title.
Turns out it was just The Age of Reason that had Guernica. The cover art for Iron in the Soul is Picasso’s The War.
That you will always have genuine respect for people who display extensive knowledge about their area of expertise in a non-showy way, even when it is something as mundane as how to efficiently deliver mail from a small office. That you would give literally anything from 12pm onwards for someone with a soothing voice to talk to you for 20 minutes. That even when working in a call centre, you have these brief spine-tingling Zen moments where you feel acutely connected to everything around you. That no matter how much you hate yourself afterwards, you always feel a little bit of happiness when you successfully complete a survey. That it is not possible to look forward to the end of the day without making the day feel infinitely longer. That 12% of HR managers are called Tracy and if you include alternative similar shrill-sounding but blandly inoffensive female names, i.e. Vicky, the figure skyrockets to 93%. That you consider it one of your basic human rights to take 5 minutes’ unscheduled break time to sit on the toilet and browse the internet on your smartphone every single day. That people who always sit with the same people at lunch are irritating, while those who sit alone or with different people each time are not. That a shocking number of nursing homes/schools/other supposedly for-the-public-good type organisations are run at a profit, and that you are not sure whether the manager’s evident discomfort at revealing this information is damning or faintly redeeming. That having to arrive precisely on time for work each day, knowing that even being 30 seconds late will cost you money, makes you remarkably anxious in the morning. That, after a certain period of time in a soul-destroying job, weekends become not metaphorically but literally sacred. That some people claim to be a civil servant despite knowing full well that anyone else would describe them as a refuse collector, and only that if they are being excessively polite.
That people will try to cheat any system for their own benefit, regardless of the imperceptibility of this benefit. That this has more to do with their egotistical personality and neo-Darwinian Weltanschauung than any tangible benefits they might derive. That it is possible to come up with a nickname for anyone and make it stick in your head, regardless of how little it resembles the person in question. That it is frequently harder to do nothing than to do something, and that this has little to do with whether or not you want to do anything. That an extended telephone call can cause a temporary cessation in all minor forms of physical discomfort. That people can tell you, so sincerely that you almost believe them, that the standard-issue bicycle stands in the car park are there to separate cars. That the most offensive thing anyone can say to you when you phone them up to do a survey is that they charge £100 per hour for their time.
That keyboards with one key that doesn’t work properly can really stress you out. That moving seats is sometimes akin to salvation. That it is more difficult than you might think to get angry with someone you’ve never met. That people actually very rarely insult or swear at market research telephone interviewers. That having to enter into sadly nostalgic but inchoate conversation with a dementia sufferer when you already feel guilty about phoning them is penance for annoying innumerable other people that day. That everyone, after a certain period of time working as a telephone interviewer, adopts the same passive-tense, euphemistic, corporatist antispeak that dominates business and political discourse. That other people’s homemade lunches are nauseating. That your average man on the street is more willing to help out his cable TV company than his local authority, and that it is possible to sympathise with this perspective. That the length of time you take to dry your hands increases dramatically when you are bored and/or cold. That all market research is thinly-veiled PR. That most people do not notice fundamental errors in systems they have personally designed and, when these errors are pointed out to them, they never bother to fix them. That the sight of the 1963 Guernica-covered edition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Iron in the Soul on somebody’s desk can make you suddenly and profoundly happy. That you judge people far more readily and extensively than you believe to be remotely acceptable. That some people really do not know how to spell and are too embarrassed to ask others how to spell things. That smokers always take breaks at the earliest possible opportunity, while non-smokers devise elaborate schemata to ensure the timing of their breaks minimises the psycho-subjective length of the day. That it is impossible to visualise what anyone on the phone looks like unless you know them.