‘Good afternoon, my name is Bradley, and how may I be of help to you today?’
After you’ve spent ten minutes negotiating an automated system that quite clearly aims to frustrate you from ever getting through to a human being, when you do get through to one, through dint of your own bloody-minded refusal to reply to any of the absurd automated questions — ‘If you are calling about something irrelevant, please say “irrelevant!”’ — until the system cannot cope with your silence, and concedes that it will have to put you through to a real person, it is patently absurd for that person to pretend to be your long-lost friend, beyond ecstatic that you have rung them.
I have a theory that call-centre people, for reasons entirely understandable, are boiling over with so much anger and unhappiness that they have decided to express it through the medium of oppressive long-winded courtesy.
Hence, when you tell Bradley you want to do a transfer, he doesn’t say yes, he says: ‘So you want to do a transfer. Yes, of course, I’ll be happy to help you facilitate that transfer today in just a moment after I’ve taken you through security, if you are happy to do that with us, here, today?’
You say you are. But he doesn’t ask for your passcode. He says: ‘That’s excellent news! And now, if you’re ready to continue, I’ll commence to take you through that security process with us, here, today, by asking yourself, if you don’t mind, the first digit, and the fifth digit, of your telephone banking passcode, please, so that we can get that transfer sorted for yourself, with us, here, today.’
It is clear to you that he is playing a cruel and savage game. He not only misconstrues the reflexive pronoun — an old trick — but he pretends to finish a sentence, then just at the point where the verbosity might end, he adds another word, then another, until you are driven half mad trying to second guess where the sentence is really ending, or indeed if it is ever going to end, a form of torment that is blood-vessel bursting.
You give him the first and fifth digits of your passcode, but he doesn’t say fine. He says: ‘I’m pleased to confirm that you have been successful in completing the passcode entry component of your security clearance, here, with us, today, so thank you very much indeed, for that.’
You want to self-harm. But you realise the only way you’re going to get what you want is to humour him so you say ‘thanks’. In doing so, you are fully aware that you are thanking him for thanking you.
And he says: ‘No problem! Thank you!’ In other words, he is now thanking you for thanking him for thanking you.
At this point in the fake politeness process, it occurs to you that everyone in the world is now so finely poised on the brink of violence that the only thing between you and the man from the bank trading four-letter expletives — and choice, depraved, unspeakable insults — is a thick barrier of thank yous.
Of course, we go along with it. But the other day, I was on the phone to the bank again and the mask slipped.
The recorded message had strayed into strange new territory and after a few ‘Please say what you are calling abouts, the recorded voice said: ‘If you are waiting for a car to be delivered press one…’
When the human finally answered, I asked her whether the bank had started doing courtesy cars.
She said they had not. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘it’s just that your recorded message asked if
I was waiting for a car delivery.’
‘Yes, that’s right. Card delivery,’ she said.
‘Oh card!’ I exclaimed.
‘Don’t shout at me!’ she yelled.
‘I’m not shouting,’ I explained. ‘I’m exclaiming.’
‘You’re being aggressive,’ she said.
I suppose this was inevitable. Our need to feel institutionally safe and corporately ‘heard’ at all times means we are becoming unable to deal with each other or get anything done because each interaction requires so much explaining and apologising for imagined emotional hurts.
‘Look, I’m not being aggressive,’ I said, being really quite aggressive in order to get my point across about not being aggressive. ‘I’m having a laugh with you. I was amused that card sounded like car on your automated system and so I exclaimed amusedly, hoping for a like-minded reaction in you.’
‘Oh,’ she said, crestfallen. A pause, then: ‘I can look into that for you.’
‘I can look into the misleading message and how card sounded like car. I can lodge a formal complaint about this, for you, with us, here, today…’