Monday, January 17, 2005

Conversational Quirks

In the last month, I've has a most interesting temporary assignment in a "mystery shopping" company. It's an organization that coordinates hiring people to observe the stores and staff of retail businesses and the businesses which rely on the information gathered. No doubt you've seen the web ads like "Get paid to shop". This is link to some mystery shopping companie's application area. Retail is a competitive field, in which good service or bad can make the difference in the bottom line, so this information gathering is becoming a huge business. .
My job initially was to make as many phone calls a day as I could manage, to those who had applied and been accepted to be a mystery shopper (this was done through the recruting page of the website) as well as reminder calls to those who's assignments were coming due. I would make around three hundred or more calls each day, depending on the amount of time that had to be spent on each one. Ninety per cent of them were to the US. That it was an eyeopener is putting it mildly. Here are some observations:
First off, telemarketers have almost completely subverted the basic forms of polite exchange between people. They seem to be the only ones who still observe the "form" of proper telephone etiquette as was the norm for so long. Now it is the big tip-off that an unwanted caller is on the line. Things that I was taught were the simple courtesies of phone manners ("Hello, is this the x residence?" wait for answer, "Is so-and-so available?", etc.) would more often than not bring a very hostile sounding "Yeeees, WHY?" When I got the chance to identify myself , the mood would shift markedly. I was representing something they were interested in. I've even had the person I was looking for, lie that it was them. If the person wasn't home and whoever answered didn't know about the job application, I'd have to do some quick tap dancing to explain the call. It wasn't a universal reaction; some people were delightful to speak to, but it was over 80%. Defusing that low-grade hostility over and over was the most exhausting part of the job. Sometimes I wonder if this subversion isn't deliberate. How can you have a meaningful exchange of ideas when you are afraid almost, of picking up your own phone? Given the political climate in the US, this could be useful state of things for some?
Secondly, what's up with "This is." as a complete statement to acknowledge one's presence? The first time I heard that one, we both were silent until I realized this was the entire answer to "Is so-and-so available?" Then there was the alternative "Yes", leading me to expect that so-and-so is going to be called to the phone. Again more silence. I caught on to both, but it was always jarring. It got me to thinking. Is this an extension of "e-mail-ese", with its disregard for spelling, punctuation and other forms of organized thought? Is everyone's time so precious that verbal interaction is as short and clipped as possible? I am from the States, though I haven't lived there for some time. It was like calling a foreign country.
I realize this is a rant on a minor subject, at least on the surface. Even Shakespeare was villified in his time for introducing "misbegotten words" into the purity of the Queen'sEnglish. Still, I think it might have deeper meanings than just changes in verbal taste or fashion. And not just the ones everyone complains about, i.e. "the quality of education these days".
More later
Blue Ibis

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