Sometimes I think that I write because without it, I would never sleep at all.
Perfectly good nights of sleep tend to get interrupted by thoughts that only leave me alone once I’ve exorcized them into printed word. This morning at 4:30AM it was a sudden epiphany on why I don’t like to talk on the telephone.
After graduating from college I got a relatively straightforward office job answering other people’s phone calls. It was a decent job for a fresh college grad: full time, the pay was competitive and I had benefits. The only problem was that I had to answer other people’s phone calls.
It sounds like a simple prospect and yet it wasn’t. The people whose calls I was answering by and large did not want to take those calls, which left increasingly disgruntled callers with only me to blame as the stubborn barrier between them and the person they really wanted to speak to. For the most part I only dealt with mild frustration and over time getting bitched at served to thicken my skin some.
One incident though stands out strongly in my memory as an important life lesson on what behavior not to tolerate. Ever. Particularly at work.
It was a large building and many of its inhabitants were only accessible to me via a several minute walk through a packed warehouse and up a set of stairs. As such I had no way of knowing when people were unwilling to take a phone call unless they had placed their phone into ‘do not disturb’ mode, spoken to me about it or I had attempted to ring through. I knew one girl who would frequently say to me in the morning, “I can’t take any calls today at all. No exceptions.” Seeing as she received about twenty of them per day that was twenty people getting increasingly unhappy and frantic with me each time they unsuccessfully tried to make contact, but I digress.
One afternoon I attempted to ring a call through to a forty-something man in one of the back offices with whom I’d always had what I would quantify as a friendly work relationship. He was a little odd, and years later I found out that not only was he prone to drinking heavily at work but was also carrying on an extra-marital affair with his office as playground, but at the time he’d always been friendly and funny enough toward me. That day, there was the mandatory, brief, two ring attention noise before my phone in the front connected to the speaker on the one on his desk, at which point I heard him scream at me like a deranged animal:
“I’M ON THE !@#$-ING PHONE!!!”
Startled and shaken, I obviously hung up. It was a bit like getting a bucket of ice water thrown on me out of nowhere. Composing myself, I advised his caller that the gentleman was unavailable and would he like to leave a message. Then I pondered the situation.
Since I was able to ring through he obviously had not, in fact, been on the phone as he so eloquently informed me – otherwise I would have heard a busy tone. I realized he must have been on an important cell phone call and I had interrupted.
So I composed him an email telling him that since I can’t visually see his office from our opposing points in the building, if he is taking an important cell call, to please put his office phone into ‘do-not-disturb’ mode rather than bellowing obscenities at me into the intercom by way of telling me that he was busy.
Shortly thereafter I had this red-faced, demented alcoholic standing over my desk screaming more epithets into my face for having the audacity, as but a humble receptionist, to tell him what to do.
He stormed off and once again I sat stunned, tears pricking my eyes. The people who sat around me were staring at me with the air of witnesses to an abrupt car crash. They had that: “what in heck just happened here?” expression.
Embarrassed but determined not to take it lying down, I rather stupidly got up from my desk and followed him out into the warehouse to which he had fled after cursing me out so thoroughly.
Catching up to him where he’d paused to bitch about my ineptitude to two male colleagues, I asked him in an admittedly childlike fashion why he was treating me this way – I had thought we were friends.
Thus opening myself up to a third round of red faced bellowing as I finally broke down in tears.
Sadly, neither of the two other so-called males now witnessing this were capable of reaching down and retrieving whatever passed for their cojones to tell the out of control 40-something male to lay off the crying 22 year old kid in front of him, they merely stared. One of them did approach me later to inform me that I shouldn’t let him treat me that way.
There were other phone-related incidents but that one is decidedly the most colorful. I was also surprised to find last night as I lay there running my mental finger over the memory that it still bears a faint scar of hurt and humiliation. I know now that what happened to me then was literally illegal, and I had every right to react as such – but I was young, and ignorant, and I took it.
One of the benefits of age is knowing exactly what you will not ever take again.
Maybe the alcoholic was having a bad day, maybe somebody stole all his beer, maybe he just found out his dog died. Honestly I don’t care. There wasn’t and never will be any excuse for that kind of behavior in the workplace and regardless of my own personal circumstances I also learned that I will never treat someone like that. I have more self control. Despite women having the reputation as the more emotional gender, the overwhelming majority of people in my life I’ve personally witnessed utterly losing it in public have been men. Testosterone really can be poison sometimes.
My point is that I think the experience of being a receptionist has managed to sour me for life toward the telephone. If faced with unemployment and no other options, I would take such a job again, but only as an absolute last resort against destitution.
Also, I always am and always will be as kind and helpful as possible toward receptionists, who have in my option the most difficult and underrated job in any office environment.
For craps sake, calm down, it’s only work after all. And don’t forget to tip your waiter.