I’m crouched on the floor of the office storeroom desperately trying to breathe. The room is jammed, floor to ceiling, with haphazardly stacked boxes. I cling to the lone table’s leg in a feeble attempt to stop the room from spinning. My breath comes in tight, rasping gasps and the buzzing in my ears syncs with the crackling fluorescent bulb above my head. Pressure builds in my skull, like a thick rubber band squeezing my brain, and I think, “I must remember to put this in my memoir.”
My friend and fellow fundraiser finds me rocking back and forth, ugly tears streaming down my face. She sinks to her knees and urges me to look her in the eyes.
“Deep breaths. Slowly. In and out. Good girl.” As the daughter of a psychologist, she’s read plenty of books about panic attacks.
Later, our campaign manager discovers me manically babbling at her in the canteen, or aptly named “breakout area.” It has come to his attention that I’ve been logged off from the phone for too long.
“I just had a panic attack in the storeroom!” I laugh at him. He glances at my friend. There was nothing in his training manual about handling demented, rogue callers.
He sends me home early, saying something about “duty of care” and calling an ambulance. “I don’t need an ambulance, I need to be famous,” I want to spit back at him.
“There’s more to life than telephone fundraising,” he says with an apologetic grin. “But then again, what do I know?”— this coming from the guy who milks the phrase, “Playtime is over folks” on an hourly basis. “What does he know?” I ask myself.
Of course there’s more to life than telephone fundraising. I should be on a yacht right now sipping Veuve Clicquot with James Franco. But I’m not. I’m twenty-six, two years past my former life as a slightly recognizable South African soap opera actress and working in a charity fundraising call center in London.
My flatmate had warned me this might happen. The flexible working hours and strangely high pay would seem attractive at first. (Especially when London had snorted up all my savings in the first three months.) But the thrill of being able to pay rent without using the Bank of Dad would soon wear off and I’d realize I was stuck in the place that “dreams went to die,” he’d warned. I’d shrugged off his melodramatic warning, preferring to cradle my gleaming paycheck.
I leave the office, without an ambulance, and roam the streets of East London. Busses stuffed with happy drunk people sweep past as I weave through all the hipsters gathered outside pop-ups and street feasts and micro-brewery bars. “Is this it?” I ask myself, and then I remember that I work in a call center — the place that made me break out in a hot, bumpy rash. I hadn’t worked out whether it was a stress rash or caused by the layer of dust that clung to everything in the office. I throw my handbag at a tree. It seems like the right thing to do. I call my best friend, another mildly recognizable South African actress trying to hack out an existence in overpriced, overpopulated London.
I try not to scream or laugh or do both, feeling like there’s a crack down the very center of me while I babble about moving back home where there’s sun and space and my career, and does London realize who I am and what’s the point of life anyway?
“Oh, no, she’s having an existential crisis,” my friend says.
* * *
When I return to work the next week I receive a few sympathetic nods. Turns out my “episode” was nothing out of the ordinary. Most callers reach a “saturation point” where they burn out and can no longer call. Some callers have a higher pain threshold than others. A few weeks ago a woman was sent home in an ambulance after she passed out at her desk. She was a middle-aged alcoholic though, not a struggling young actress like myself.
Everyone is much more concerned with the news that a high-flying caller may face suspension. He made the fatal error of flirting with a supporter, urging her to find him on Facebook. He was one of the rockstar callers, on the senior pay rate thanks to his ability to turn data into direct-debit gold. He was a career caller who had started as a “chugger” (charity mugger), peddling third-world sob stories on the streets in order to secure bank details.
But this time, he’d gotten ahead of himself, forgetting that all of our “calls are monitored and recorded.” They are always listening. Ultimately he’s taken into one of the glass-fronted meeting rooms (glass-fronted so that no one would ever be accused of sexual harassment) and sternly told not to do that again. They’d never fire him. They need him. Senior-pay-rate callers keep the company in business, smooth-talking their way into unsuspecting old ladies’ homes and conning them into giving over their bank account numbers. They make a business out of bullying. They make the steep admin fees charities eagerly hand over to the company seem worth it. Standard pay-rate callers earn half as much, mining the sludge of data, contact details provided by those poor fools who forgot to check that sneaky “Do not contact me” box on a random petition they’d completed online.
I sit next to a guy I’ve had a few superficial “so what do you actually do?” exchanges with. He’s also an actor with some minor London theater success behind him. He looks older than his thirty-one years, the color leaking out of his face as he stares at the script on his computer screen. He’s recently returned from a few magic months of freedom, living off the money he’d earned on a McDonald’s commercial.
He slams his fist down on his desk. “What? So you don’t care about the tigers?” he barks into his headset. No matter how much time you take away from this place, when you’ve burnt out you’re well and truly done.
One of the more relaxed campaign managers strolls over. He also has some minor London theater success behind him so he’s more empathetic to my desk buddy’s exasperation. He magnanimously allows him “time off the phone,” to be logged as “training” so the stats don’t reveal that my desk buddy has been logged off for too long, according to the lengthy, complicated stat sheet they pasted to the entrance of the breakout area. Stats, targets, gifts, scripts, disclaimers. These govern our existence.
And time off the phone is the ultimate reward. The less gracious campaign managers throw chocolates at us while we’re plugged into the phones, the computer system dialing on our behalf, locked into an endless cycle of one-sided, repetitive “conversations.” As much as we recite the same script over and over, we have the same objections thrown back at us repeatedly. “I’ve just been fired/I’m going through a divorce/My mother’s dying from cancer.” Tell me something I don’t know.
I’ve become a master at securing time off the phone, forging friendships with the campaign managers, counseling them on their love lives, all the while watching the clock tick. I’ve never worked a job before where the ultimate reward was not doing your job.
I take a deep breath and type my login and password into the computer system for the first time since “cracking up.” I then place the crusty headset over my ears and will myself not to think about lice. I’m calling on behalf of a respected international children’s charity. They’re my favorite charity. I’d love to say that’s because they do good work sticking inoculations in tiny African children’s arms, but actually it’s because they buy us pizza and hold conference calls with us telling us how many impoverished African children they’ve saved. Time off the phone.
The script pings onto the screen in front of me. I know the drill. One — greeting: Ask for the supporter by their full name so we don’t risk any legal implications by securing bank details from the wrong person. Two — disclaimer: “These calls are monitored and recorded,” so they can make sure we don’t swear/offend/flirt. Three: the icebreaker — Here we get to know the supporter: Why did they choose to support (or not support, in most cases) this charity? I once asked a woman why she chose to support a massive national animal charity.
“Well, I came downstairs one evening, yeah,” she began without hesitation, “and I found my partner, no, ex-partner, fucking my bullmastiff. He was fucking my bullmastiff up the arse! So that’s why I support you guys.” Finally. Something I didn’t expect.
Four: the rationale, or “inspiration,” or “let me tell you this really sad story but hey, here’s the good news, you can stop this terrible thing from happening by throwing some money at it!”
I’ve always been begrudgingly fascinated by the first world’s approach to charity: Give us two pounds a month and we’ll cure AIDS and world hunger and global warming! The reality is that you sign up for a gift of two pounds a month and I, as one of those rockstar senior callers, am being paid twelve pounds an hour… Do the math.
Five: ask for money once, twice, three times. A three-ask structure, so it seems like you’re bargaining — I mean “actively listening and responding” to the customer. I mean “supporter.” Always move on; you are in control of the call, you are calling on behalf of a charity.
A woman once told me that the reason she supported Britain’s foremost children’s charity was because her grandson had been murdered. She believed that if the charity I was calling on behalf of had been around at the time then maybe things would have turned out differently. I automatically responded like a well-programmed robot: “Firstly, I am so very sorry to hear that you and your family had to go through that experience. Secondly, please may I say thank you. Thank you for taking such an awful situation and turning it around to do some good by getting involved with our cause.” Move on. She signed up for a “gift” larger than I had originally asked for. I watched my soul spiral down the cord attaching my headset to the phone console. I doubted her ten pounds a month would ever stop little boys and girls from being hurt. But it may pay for some more pamphlets to be shoved into a few more mailboxes. So that’s good. Right?
The mopey new guy I met a week ago is sitting opposite me, his floppy blonde hair shading his eyes. “Of course, I completely understand,” he says into his headset, “Thank – ” His whole body heaves, still not used to people hanging up on him on a regular basis. He turns back to his NME Magazine, trying to ignore the dial tone spinning round and round on his screen, attempting to connect him to the next supporter. He won’t last. He’s too innocent. Most people won’t survive the three-month probation period, choosing less taxing, poorly paid part-time work where you’re a person and not a robot reciting scripted responses; a human being and not a stat on a sheet.
I’ve made my “first ask” (I have two more to plow through if necessary) for the respected international children’s charity. The lovely, lonely old pensioner, who had the misfortune of answering when our computer system dialed her home telephone on my behalf, responded with, “I already support lifeboat and donkey charities.” I am so very, very tired of the “lifeboat charities,” the donkey charities, and all the other random ones out there. “There are children starving in Africa with AIDS and dirty drinking water and no Internet!” I want to scream at her. Instead, like a well-programmed robot, I instantly counter with, “Oh, I am so glad to hear that you are involved with such good causes. They do such good work.” I try again. And again. Still no luck. This old lady will not budge. I speed-talk my way through the financial disclosure, reeling off the admin costs so she won’t question the disproportionate figures.
I log off for a “personal break” to go sit in the office bathroom and stare at my Instagram feed to remind myself that the world is so much bigger than securing a stranger’s bank information. Someone has scrawled “This place smells of…” on the cubicle wall. Ah, a provocation. An incredibly poetic individual has responded with “piss and exploitation.”
* * *
The following day I’m back at work in a training capacity. Breakdowns aside, I’m still good at my job. My talent for sweet-talking people into handing over their account numbers has swiftly elevated me to senior pay-rate status and training assistant. I’m dangerously close to being sucked up the company ladder: caller becomes coach becomes campaign manager. Each promotion came with more time off the phone.
I’m tasked with coaching a sweet twenty-something girl. She should be out there making mistakes and getting drunk and living her life, not letting me teach her the art of manipulation. Her large golden hoop earrings glint under the office lights. They bob from side to side as she shakes her head.
“I just don’t get it,” she says. “These people are telling me all these horrible things about how they’ve just buried their husband and their pension won’t even cover their water bill and that their son hasn’t called for months and I’m pretending to care but actually I’m just going to ask them for money. It doesn’t seem right.”
It’s as if the heavens have split and God has spoken to me through this earnest South London girl. All my programmed responses and diversion tactics leave me. I realize in that moment that I’m done. My burnout point happens to be at two years. I miss genuine interaction with people, giving a damn about what they say and not feeling the choking pressure to turn their responses into an avenue to ask for their bank details.
“I know,” I respond. I know.
* * *
Claire Gordon-Webster is a British born, South African-raised, London-residing freelance writer and recovering soap star. She documents her exploits at The Plight Of The Ambitious Woman. You can follow her here: @CGordonWebster.
Alex Nall is a cartoonist and teaching artist. His ongoing series “Teaching Comics” is a regular feature on Chicago Literati. He lives in Chicago.