The part of communal work-life I miss most is gallows humour. This can only be forged in really crap jobs, and they don’t come much worse than call-centre work. I’ve done a fair bit, cold-calling for rubbish products, financial services and charities. Call centres are offices, but also open prisons. Managers keep track of the number and length of your toilet breaks. They count how many calls you attempt each minute, so you can’t slack off. When some poor sap does pick up, they sometimes listen in. You would only know this after you got taken to one side and asked why you hadn’t attempted to flog the cash-strapped pensioner some side plates. Your continued employment was always at stake. We all suffered the same dilemma. On the one hand, crippling financial need; on the other, our souls.
Yet an atmosphere of Stasi-like distrust can really juice one’s rebellious instincts. These call centres were frequently staffed by actors (one of whom is now Hollywood royalty, starring in Marvel films for presumably more than £10 an hour). We were young, had the gift of the gab and could work off-script, which made sales conversations less robotic, and often more lucrative. If skiving was off the table, there were other plays.
Seeing a potential customer with an amusing name pop up on your computer screen was a highlight. “GOOD MORNING, MR BELLY!” you would trill, a decibel notch above normal. This let people around you know that high jinks were afoot, without alerting managers who were patrolling the floor. “It’s pronounced Bee-lay,” the mark would sigh. Then the game was finding the most ludicrous way into the conversation you could get away with. “Would you describe your days as donkey-less?” I once deadpanned, on a charity job. “That is, would you care to adopt an ass?” The trick was to quickly segue into drier, scripted information, so they wouldn’t catch on, and bosses couldn’t accuse you of not doing the job.
We received a lot of abuse on these calls, even when we went by the book. If someone was really wringing you out, the thing to do was grow maddeningly polite, pouring oil on their fire. While murmuring in an understanding manner, we would be pantomiming larger, more truthful reactions for the benefit of friends sitting opposite. Sometimes we would change accents halfway through a call to throw off someone who was screaming. That was high-risk, though. Better to opt for our chief modus operandi: creative mispronunciation and intentional thickness. “Is this … the School for Sacred Courgettes?” you might ask, if you were trying to get in touch with say, Scolaire du Sacré-Coeur de Jette. (Not a real example – I’m just showing you how it worked.)
I feel bad about it now, of course. These were essentially prank phone calls, as beneath us as the work itself. Yet as our only recourse, they restored to the job a perverse dignity and vitality. I don’t know how it works if you are not in an office – without pals to vent to, to make you laugh, do the frustrations of a working day simply accumulate? Surely it’s less fun if your work husband is your actual husband?
I’ve been working from home for 10 years; I’m familiar with its boredoms. I almost look forward to receiving cold calls – though these days it’s usually a robot. Cowards. If it is a person, I make sure I never lose my temper. I’ve been where they are. Besides, “Mr Salamander” sounds pretty cool.