Tuesday, September 22, 2015

On being a scaredyCATI. I worked as a market research phone interviewer for nearly six years, and most of the time I hated it. I've always dealt poorly with rejection, and it just did not get any easier to call people up and ask them to do surveys.

I liked the people I worked with – who came from an interesting range of backgrounds, from students and retirees to underpaid creative professionals – and I liked the small company, which never felt too much like a grim battery. Even when we were at our busiest – we did a statewide local government performance benchmarking survey that required full shifts – there were never more than about forty people at work.

But I dreaded the cold-calling. I used to make endless cups to tea to procrastinate from having to sit back down in my cubicle. I used to get in trouble for dawdling on my breaks and for talking too much with my co-workers – my 'dial rates' were always too low.

And you won't find a more literal version of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon than the call centre supervisor system. I got along quite well with most of the supervisors – by the end, I'd worked there long enough that some of them had once been regular interviewers like me – but I hated the feeling of constantly being monitored. I never felt at ease. I always felt like I was maybe already doing something wrong, and was just waiting to be caught and reprimanded.

That's what people don't understand when they say things like, "Surveillance is benign if you're a diligent worker and good citizen. It's only for catching bad people. If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear." This ignores the structural purpose of surveillance systems: they are designed to make everyone feel like potential wrongdoers. They're animated by blanket fear. At least part of the reason why I prefer to work as a freelancer, alone at home, is that I can minimise workplace surveillance.

Yet despite feeling so terrible about this work, I sometimes agreed to do more specialised jobs such as mystery shopping. I had to pretend to sign up for insurance, to test the companies' phone customer service. Fuck, it was stressful, having enough information to fool them into thinking I was from a completely different location, and whether the details of my fictitious home and car passed their test. Every fucking phone call was like infiltrating enemy lines in a stolen enemy uniform, hoping I didn't give myself away with some shibboleth. I had to do this job from home, on my own phone, using a special code to hide the caller ID. Oh god, the sick feeling of each call.

I thought I'd done well to last in the industry for as long as I did, but thinking back, I wonder if this job is the reason why I now loathe doing phone interviews or making business calls.

It's quite a disadvantage in my chosen profession. I now turn down offers to interview people because I'm overwhelmed by anxiety – will I fuck up the questions, will they be mean to me, will my recording device fail? There are so many people I can anger and disappoint with a bad interview. And I feel such shame about it – because a good journalist is meant to enjoy interviewing people, and eagerly seek out interviews.

Having to interview people for Out of Shape was nightmarish. I knew I couldn't get around it. I tried to do it in person or online if I could, but I had to interview one person over the phone, who was home sick from work at the time, and all the way through I could feel myself slipping back into that slick but ingratiating voice I used to use in my market research days, jollying the interviewee along.

Anyway, I was just thinking about this because I have to call up my old high school and deal with the woman in the development office who's meant to be sending out the invitations to our forthcoming reunion, because she hasn't replied to my emails and my fellow alumna are freaking the fuck out about it. Personally I couldn't give a fuck whether there is a reunion or not; I only decided to help organise it because that way I get the kind of reunion I would want to attend.

Maybe I'll make a cup of tea and then call.

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