Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I’m on “Hold” for the phone company. They are playing music, interrupted intermittently by a recorded announcement, a commiserating female voice, saying,

“Please stay on the line. An AT&T representative will be with you shortly.”

I think about that job. Somebody had to go into a studio, and record that announcement. Who was it? And what was the basis of their selection?

A man would be wrong for the assignment. Men are generally less sympathetic. They’d be like – not their words, but you could detect it in their tone – they’d be like, “Oh, so the poor customer has to wait a few of minutes before his little phone problem gets attended to. Listen, Jerk Face. There are people with real problems in this world. You’re lucky you have a phone!”

That’s why they don’t hire men for that job. The “Audition Pool” is strictly women. My waiting time allows me to wonder how this particular woman got the job. And how exactly she feels about it. Had she studied at one of our country’s most prestigious drama schools, training to tackle the poetry of Shakespeare, the intensity of Tennessee Williams, only to land the role of,

“Please stay on the line. An AT&T representative will be with you shortly”?

And once she got the job, what kind of direction did she get at the recording session?

“Okay. We want ‘caring’, but not cloying.”

I ponder how many ‘takes’ were required before they were finally satisfied?

“That’s close, Margaret, but you sounded overly sincere, to the point of sounding insincere, if you know what I mean. They have to believe you’re sorry for keeping them on ‘Hold’, but not too sorry. I mean, we’re not doing it on purpose, for heaven’s sake. I mean, on that last ‘take’, you were entirely too consoling, like a mother going, ‘Oh, sweetheart. I bet that ‘boo boo’ really hurts.’ They’re grownups. They can handle being on ‘Hold’. Pull back on the empathy. It’s an announcement, not a ‘Condolence Call’.”

You have time to think about lots of things when you’re on “Hold” for a while. I think about how the broken phone in my office – the one calling I’m about – worked perfectly the day before. Then suddenly, there was no dial tone, and the lights on the key panel went dark. I am reminded of the times when, the day before I get sick, I am not sick at all. I think about how similar we are in that way to machines. How abruptly ideal health can transform into serious malfunction.

I think about the “due diligence” I conducted before making the call. I brought in a phone from the bedroom, to test if the problem involved the phone or the connection. The bedroom phone didn’t work in my office either. To confirm my hypothesis, I disconnected the phone in my office and I reconnected it in the bedroom. The phone now worked fine. Twice proven conclusion:

It’s not the phone. It’s the connection.

I am excited to communicate my conclusions to the AT&T representative. I am certain they’ll be impressed. Not waiting for professional assistance, I had experimented on my own, in contrast to, I am sure, many less proactive customers, who discover a phone problem and immediately collapse.

After fifteen minutes, standing with the receiver in my hand, I am really ready to talk to someone. But the time has not quite arrived. I am informed, by the same polite but not overly solicitous recorded voice that my call will be answered in the order in which it was received. The fairness of this arrangement buttresses my patience. Though I hardly enjoy extended waits on the telephone, it would be intolerable if it turned out they were playing favorites.

My mind now considers who my AT&T representative will ultimately be. Not the specific person, but what country they’ll be from. Previous repair inquiries have taught me – though the sampling is admittedly small and therefore hardly scientifically valid – that from an efficiency standpoint, I am better off with a representative from India than a representative from Eastern Europe. The single caveat here is that many representatives from India communicate in extremely quiet voices, so, though their advice is of a higher caliber than that of the representatives from Eastern Europe, you cannot understand what they’re saying. On the other hand, how valuable is it to hear a full-throated Romanian phone representative saying, “I can not help you”?

It is nearing twenty minutes, and I continue to be on “Hold.” My mind jumps to the future. We have a wedding coming up. I have, belatedly, begun pitching in. I am thinking about the toast I have to write. And the dance lessons I’m taking in preparation for the event. Though the time pressure is not imminent, I am resenting this extended delay. There are things that I need to do.

Finally, realizing the futility of my annoyance, I surrender entirely to the situation at hand. As the “Hold” music reverberates in my ear, I succumb to the rhythm, and begin practicing my dance steps.


YEKIMI said...

THIS may be the "AT&T voice" lady you are talking about: She's done a lot of other voiceover work for other companies besides AT&T. Or it could even be Pat Fleet or Jane Barbe who did them; read more about them on Wikipedia. [Yes, I also wondered about who did those voice announcements years ago and set out to find out who did them years ago, before the internet, no one seemed to know. Now with the Internet, it is so much easier]

Alan said...

You are in top form!

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; voice talent, yes it's a job that requires real talent as you must know, have to not only record whole phrases, they also record discrete words many of them numbers. E.G. "one," "two," "three," ... "ten," ... "twenty," ... "hundred," "thousand," and they have to do them in a neutral fashion so they will sound natural(ish) when the phone system pieces them together to make a number.

I think you're right, it must be a long day in the recording booth to get them just right.


The Great Dane Iorg said...

But, but, but...was your call important to them?

PG said...

You and your readers might enjoy the book, "Your Call is Important to Us" by Canadian English professor and writer, Laura Penny.
It's a scream, literally and otherwise.
Her most recent book, "More Money than Brains" is also an excellent diatribe on modern culture, such as it is.
After you enjoy her 'venomous diatribe' (USA Today), with a 'gift for the savoury snark' (Winnipeg Free Press) you can just go out and shoot yourself with the nearest, readily available handgun in your 'hood! said...

This won't succeed in reality, that is exactly what I think.