by Kevin Groves

If you're at home, I can call you. If you're at work, I can call you. If you're having a love affair with your cell phone, I can call you. If you're awake, I can call you. If you're asleep, I can call you. If you exist anywhere in North America and are within earshot of a phone, I can call you. If you're in the middle of the playoffs, that relaxing weekend, your best friend's wedding, or your loved one's funeral, I can call you, though I probably won't be answered. That's OK: I'll just leave a message and call someone else.

I can call you anywhere, anytime. I am like that mosquito flitting around your ear, asking you politely to recant your experience as a college graduate, an apprenticeship ticket-holder, a business owner, or a foster parent. I will ask you how much money you make, how many children you have, who you work for, and why you are not in a job which is more related to that degree you graduated with. You might ask me about the relevancy of my questions, but I won't listen to you since my survey doesn't have room for those comments.

Looking back over what I've just written, I wonder if you might get the impression that my job has some power, importance, or societal benefit attached to it. Let me assure you that it takes about a week of phonerworld to shake off this naive view. I am a parasite, plain and simple.

For the last eight months, I've been doing survey work for a statistical research company to support my depraved habits (like 2am cravings for peanut butter M&M's). I shouldn't complain, really: the pay is excellent for a low-end student job, and my coworkers and bosses are good people. I should be grateful, right? So what if virtually everyone I talk to on the phone would rather see my head on a stick sharpened at both ends than do a survey with me, that's just the job, and who am I to think that I have an opinion?

I may be a phoner, but I'm still a human being.

When I step off the elevator onto the office floor, I walk into Douglas Coupland's worst nightmare: the limp pastel wall paint, the absolute lack of any personalization, and of course the row upon row of Ikea furnished cubicles.

It is the unbending sameness of the place that sets me on edge, and drives home the fact that I am a low level, replaceable cog in a data entry machine. My world for the next eight hours is a five-foot square cubicle, a system phone, a slow computer, and a headset that digs into my ear. I look at the schedule and note that they've put me in a window spot today, and this depresses me since I have a clear view of the outside world that I have no part of as long as I'm here. I quickly shut the blinds and try to concentrate on work.

I stare at my screen for a minute and try to focus. The words 'love your job, and never aspire' flit across like a mantra, and I stare up at the fluorescent lights and wish that they weren't so bright. I'm told that all offices have similar lighting since brighter lights have been linked to higher employee productivity, and after seven months of working here with a decent record I can safely say that those studies are right. Only problem is that we start to burn out after the seventh hour or so, like plants that have been scorched by the sun.

Coworkers begin filing into their cubicles as I boot up. When you're a phoner, all traces of individuality are stripped away except your initials, which are used to tell other phoners who has called a respondent before. No longer am I Kevin Groves, I am now just KG, and every time I type it into the computer I can almost hear the voice of conformity in the background:

"You are not special. You are not a delicate or unique snowflake."

I don the headset, type in my password, and the games begin. BN looks over at me and gives me the thumbs up: he's managed to get a respondent right off the bat. It turns out to be a quick one, and he rockets through the survey in a jabber of phonerspeak that's like listening to a movie on fast forward. With my luck I'll probably get a talker.

There are basically three types of respondents when you're a phoner: the reluctant respondent, the talker, and the refusal. The refusal is self-explanatory, they'll just tell you where to go; but reluctants are about 80% of the respondents you'll get. They're people who would rather have their spine pulled out one vertebrae at a time than talk to you, but are too polite to tell you where to go.

Every so often you'll talk to someone who is generally interested in the survey, but I don't hold my breath waiting for them: they're about as rare as middle-aged movie stars who haven't had a face-lift.

My theory is reconfirmed every time I work. I say hi to a reluctant and they're polite and happy and say hi back. Then you drop the S-bomb and BOOM, instant change. It's like a switch in the respondent's brain suddenly clicked, and the other personality (the one that prefers the spinal treatment) makes its appearance. The ones with guts will just refuse, but the ones that feel obligated will go through it with you.

I almost prefer refusals. At least in those cases you can hang up on them and then say 'YAY REFUSAL' with feeling (people always stare at me at work when I do this). With reluctants you just feel worse and worse as the survey goes on, since neither one of you wants to be there.

Sometimes you'll get really weird people. DO once told me a while back that she called a respondent who claimed that she could talk to spirits. I assume that they must have gotten the better of this woman because the phone went dead halfway through the interview. She didn't really know how to code that one.

Other times you'll get people who are about as attentive as a fence post, and will make you repeat yourself. It's always cruel and usual when this sad display happens: the poor phoner, who now probably has the vocal chords of an eighty year old, being forced to say the same question over and over again. It's kind of like watching a horse with a broken leg try to run in the Kentucky Derby: you should just put him out of his misery.

Talkers, though, are the worst. Picture that annoying acquaintance in high school that would run at the mouth forever (you have to wonder how such people breathe). When phoners do a survey they estimate a time that it will take to do it, but talkers force the unlucky phoner to stay on the line much longer than necessary; telling you their life story about God knows what, whether it's related to your question or not. Then, (the kicker) they act surprised that the survey is taking longer than you said it would, as if it's your fault they haven't learned yet to give someone else the conch once in awhile. It's enough to make you pop a major blood vessel in frustration.

One time I listened to someone rant for ten minutes. She went on and on, and though what she had to say was valid, it had absolutely nothing to do with any of the questions I have to ask. So while she's trying to bridge the gap from the headset into my brain, I'm staring up at the ceiling wondering just how many pencils I can stick up there in one go.

And therein lies my worst problem with talkers since they often have meaningful things to say, but you have no space to put in their comments because the way the survey is constructed leaves no room. After awhile the talker will begin to see the way the wind's blowing and will become very aggravated. Suddenly, you'll be the unknowing peon at the very lowest rung on the governmental food chain (somewhere in the single celled category) that has to explain to this worn out, and pissed-off person about how the questions you're asking are relevant to their problems. Most times, though, you'll just get an earful and then the big click. ('YAY REFUSAL!')

I shouldn't complain: that's just the job.

                        Kevin Groves 
                        will be back to finish the story. Please 

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