In a Season 4 episode of the TV show Seinfeld, Jerry receives a call from a telemarketer at an inopportune moment. Jerry tells the salesman that he can’t talk at the moment, and asks for the salesman’s home phone number. When he declines, Jerry replies, “Oh, I guess you don’t want people calling you at home?”
“No,” says the telemarketer.
“Well, now you know how I feel,” says Jerry, unceremoniously hanging up to the utter delight and cheers of the studio audience. As with most Seinfeld moments, I find this scene very funny, in part because it perfectly encapsulates a common irritating experience and provides us with a brilliant vicarious power fantasy in which we can destroy the irritation through pure wit and come out the other side as the mighty “Alpha”. I never thought I would be the ignorant Beta on the other end of the line.
A couple years ago, I found myself in need of a few extra shekels to pay for school. I needed to drum up money quick, so I turned to an easy-hire option: telemarketing. Telemarketing and customer service jobs are so plentiful and easy to obtain, I get the feeling I could have swung that job even if I showed up to the interview dressed as a Mad Max villain and handed in a resume written in barbecue sauce on a crumpled piece of loose-leaf.
The company I worked for specialized in conducting surveys. In the few months I spent there, I made thousands of phone calls to private residences throughout the United States. I was tasked with repeating the same dry script verbatim for up to eight hours a day. If I deviated from the script by even one word, I would literally be called to the back office and reminded that the script could not be changed, and warned that if this happened enough times, my paycheck would suffer. Even if the person being called was being verbally abusive to me (which happened multiple times), I had to thank them for their time before hanging up. On over a dozen occasions, the hostility was so high, I felt like I was calling Liam Neeson moments after kidnapping his only daughter.
That’s when I realized that the telemarketer was never the Alpha to begin with. From minute one, we are the Beta, begging for validation from busy people who, best case, either didn’t hate me or stayed on the line long enough to give me a snarky comment I hadn’t heard before, and worse case, screamed obscenities at me like I had walked into their home, shot their husband and started rummaging through their medicine cabinet.
As a telemarketer I was completely powerless by default. Neither the employer nor the survey recipients appreciated what I was doing. The computer would auto-dial another random number the second I hung up from a call, hardly giving me a moment to breath between long and fast scripted conversations. The cheap headset felt like a shackle, tethering my head to the small workstation and radiating hot air into my ears.
A rampant “shoot the messenger” sentiment exists in our culture’s treatment of telemarketers. Whoever pesters you during dinnertime must be a greedy piece of human garbage that thinks you’re dumb enough to buy something over the phone, right? In my personal experience, telemarketers are mostly poor college students and elderly individuals trying to keep their minds busy. They don’t want to call you anymore than you want to be called, but they are completely at the mercy of their employer, who will reprimand them if they don’t reach their just-out-of-reach quota.
The same goes for any employee that works on commission. In many cases, those overly aggressive lotion salespeople that congregate at kiosks in the mall only get paid if they sell something to you. Simply put, if they don’t capitalize on the fact you made eye contact with them, they don’t eat.
Next time you’re confronted by telemarketer that dares to interrupt your dinner, remember: you aren’t really mad at them. You’re mad at their boss for putting both of you in that situation. Wait for a pause and calmly tell them you aren’t interested and would like to be put on their “do not call” list. If they persist, that isn’t aggression you’re hearing; it’s desperation