Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Age of the Impersonal

Sitting in my study the other day, I overheard my youngest son, Zachariah, trying his best to get assistance from his cell phone provider.  I’ll withhold the company’s name as they are all basically the same and the problem is universal.  It seemed he was having problems accessing the Internet on his microscopic phone.  I guess he became tired of waiting in line to go online.  More than likely, he was annoyed at me for pulling the Dad card and kicking him off of the computer.  Whatever it was, it freed up my desk and for that I can only say, “Amen!”

Still, listening to him on the phone with his provider would have been funny had it not been so painful.  His call had been answered by the cold simulated voice of customer service, which at best is a monotone monotony.  At first, the conversation was all right as it required only a series of single syllable answers. 

"Yes....No......No.....Yes......Phone.....No." It escalated from there.

"Assistance."  A pause.  "Assistance!"  Another pause.  "A...ssis....tance!"  I don't blame his tone.  "Help!"  He yells into the phone.  "I need help!"
That must have worked because I then heard him say, "Internet."  He waited.  I waited.  I could feel his aggravation mounting from down the hall.  "INTERNET!  IN...TER...NET!"  He held the phone perpendicular to his lips, screaming into the needle-sized microphone, and if he hadn’t paid so much for it, I’m sure he would have thrown it across the room.  I would have.  It almost made me feel bad enough to give him access to the computer again.  Almost.

As I said, I can't blame him.  I hate automated computerized answering services.  To me, it shouts, "You’re not important enough!"  I know that it's a money saving device and corporations save labor dollars by using it.  Still, it's cold and impersonal and somewhat insulting.

Personally, I think they do it to piss people off so they'll hang up.  Then, they've really saved money because they don’t have to fix the problem.  Or, they’ve lost money because I'll go somewhere else.

It's not just consumers who have this problem, either; it's employees as well.  The company I work for went to a recorded message answering the phone telling you of their monthly specials when you call.  They also tell you how to avoid the personal experience by ordering online.  Eventually, you get a real person.  Eventually.  Don’t hang up.  They’ll get it.  Promise.

What makes it all a total pain in the ass is that employees calling in for help have to hear the same message.  Hitting "0" only puts you to the top of the call list.  It doesn't by-pass the advertisement, at all.  Sometimes it's more than just a want.  Sometimes you need someone to answer the other end of the line.

I prefer the personal touch.  I want to know that when I call there will be a real person on the other end and not some I.T. guy’s idea of a sexy voice.  Of course, many of us have become way too addicted to cell phone availability.  Zachariah is the worst.

“Finally!  Why didn’t you answer your phone?”

“I was busy.”

“What’s the point of having a cell phone if you never answer it?”


“Too busy to answer the phone?  What were you doing?”

“Ask your mother.”  I chuckled.

“Dad!  Stop talking right there.”  I could hear the mortification in his voice, which only made me laugh harder.

I think people have a misconception of why I have a cell phone.  I don’t have one for them to reach me.  It’s so that I can reach them.  Of course, it’s also so that I can check my Facebook.

Sitting on the back porch working on the next great novel ever to be published my phone dings.  It’s a text message and I ignore it and keep scribbling away.  A minute later the phone rings and because it’s Char, I answer it.

“Are you okay?”  She sounds worried and I start checking my body for knife wounds.

“Yeah.  I think so.  Why?”

“You didn’t answer your text.”

How did we survive a couple of decades ago?  How did they survive a century ago?

And if all of that wasn’t bad enough, businesses now call you with a recorded message.  One of my phone rules is if I don’t recognize the number, I don’t answer my phone.  The unknown caller, however, left a voicemail and, concerned that it might be one of the kids using a friend’s phone, I dutifully checked the message.

“…626 for an important message” came the computerized voice.  I deleted it.  If it was an important message a person would have left it; not a computer.

It doesn't look to get any better in the future either if the latest Star Trek movie is any indication.  Chekov still couldn't get the computer to understand him.  It was almost as painful as a McDonald's drive-thru.  Isn't it just good business sense to put the person with the best speaking voice on the intercom?  No wonder they screw up your order.  You have no idea what they just read back to you.

“What did he say?  Was that right?”

"I think he said to piss off.  You're getting a strawberry shake."

“What accent was that?  Alabama?  Middle East?”

Personally, I think its revenge on us for going around the world and trying to Americanize their countries.  While we're over there trying to make them like us, they're over here taking the cheese off of my Quarter Pounder.

"Yes, I'd like a Quarter Pounder with Cheese."

The speaker clicks on with a lot of static and a twenty-second delay.  "Would you like cheese with that?"

"It's called Quarter Pounder with Cheese."

"I know the name of it, Sir.  Would you like cheese with that?"

"That's how I ordered it.  I said with cheese.  I didn't stop talking after Quarter Pounder but added ‘with cheese’."

"Very good, Sir.  So, that's a “Yes” for the cheese?"

When I pull away, I reach into the bag and pull out a fish sandwich.

Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of big businesses.  I’m not a little fan either.  If given the choice, I’ll choose a smaller, Mom-and-Pop shop over the big corporations every time.  I don’t do Starbucks but rather the Sun Shoppe downtown or the House of Joe’s around the corner, where the couches are soft and the girl behind the counter is in normal clothes.  You can sit while your order is prepared instead of standing at a cold counter.  There are three used book stores I frequent, each with an unique owner that knows everything about the books on their shelves and who can carry on a conversation until closing time.  I prefer a local barber who will ask how my children are doing and if Mom came out of surgery all right.  A local mechanic, to me, is better than a big name station and I hate how the medical field has become a chain unto itself.

Although there are parts of me that have that Manhattan spirit, in the end, I’m a Mayberry type of person.  I can’t help it.  I prefer the personal touch.

It's amazing how much can be done in life without dealing with people.   Of course, don’t pay your bills and you’ll get all kinds of human interaction.  Still, you can buy anything online - books, cars, dog food, your medication and even a cemetery plot for when your medication gets sent to Melbourne, Australia instead of Melbourne, Florida.  You can also purchase any type of insurance online without the assistance of an agent and you can even screw up your taxes online.  I know because we did it.  Then, we had to call customer service and talk to a computer who I swear was laughing at us.

You can attend church online or call Dial-A-Prayer to hear a recorded blessing to get you through your day.  You don't even have to dump your girlfriend in person.  There's an 800 rejection line for that.  Text break-ups have replaced the Dear John letter.

Families don’t talk; they Facebook or Twitter.

“You were in a car accident?”

“Yes.  I told you last week.”

“Um, no, you didn’t.  I’m pretty sure I would have remembered something like you totaling your car.”

“Dad, I put it on Facebook as they were putting me in the ambulance.  You should check your newsfeeds more often.”

The only time they want to get personal is when they need money.  When each of my children was born, we were surrounded by family.  We even had relatives from out of state.  I picked up the phone and called my friends.  “It’s another boy!”  When my grandkids come into this world, I’ll probably get a Tweet.  I’ll know about the weddings in person, though.  Those will require money.

Even if you do venture into a store to pick up Rolaids because of the stress of human interaction, you can still avoid people.  They have self check-out lanes now in most stores.  I can scan my own merchandise, pay for it, bag it and tip myself for carrying it all to the car.  Rolaids bought; people avoided.

You can even have a computer pick out your next spouse.  According to Men’s Health Magazine, “One in six newlyweds from the past three years met through an online dating service.”  Fill out a form, send in a Photo Shopped picture and wah-la, you’re soon heading to the altar in an expensive white dress that you can now afford because you skipped the going out part.  It doesn’t matter that you’re computerized soul mate may be five states over, because you’ve easily avoid the preliminary heart break and awkward dinner dates with a click of the mouse.

Still, on the upside to all of this, you can now text into work that you're sick and not even have to fake a cough.  I wonder what Ferris Bueller would have done with text messaging back in the eighties.  Furthermore, part of it is the company's fault since you couldn't get through the automated phone system before you slipped into a coma.  But, hopefully your boss will see on Facebook that you'll be better tomorrow and back at your desk.  Just be careful not to post pictures from whatever you were really doing.

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  1. I like my cell phone. I can sit outside and call my Mom while listening to the birds instead of having to go home first.
    I like to order online and I like to write e-mails.
    Want to know what I like best, though? I can turn it all off if I want to ;-)

  2. I like the convenience as well, Cat. Sadly, too many can't turn it off.