Monday, August 17, 2015

The Misanthropy of a Customer Service Representative

I've had quite a few conversations with people of late that each seem to revolve around discovering one's personality type. "Who are you?" type questions with categorical answers falling along the Myers-Briggs spectrum. Are you introverted or extroverted? It's interesting to listen to people talk about themselves, categorize themselves, in certain ways as if the words they use help them understand who they are.

For anyone who cares, I'm INTP on the Myers-Briggs chart (that Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving).

During one of these more recent conversations, a woman asked if I was introverted. "I must be because you don't really have any friends. Right?"

This is true. I have one friend. The rest of the people I know are either family or acquaintances. A friend, to me, is someone with whom I can confide my deepest darkest secrets and still not be judged...not be seen as some kind of monster. (You know the secrets I'm talking about. We all have them. Those skeletons that whisper the stories of the hit and run you were involved in, the abortion you had, your secret addiction to cocaine. Those secrets that are best kept by a party of one.)

I didn't really know how to answer this woman. She is right. I am an introvert...though I wonder if I would have been if I hadn't lived a life in customer service. For close to twenty-five years I've worked in customer service, retail, or hospitality in one form or another. I have been at the beck and call of random strangers for more than half my life, and while I have learned quite a lot about human nature, there is one thing above all others that I take away as a lesson about myself:

I hate people.

This is how I answered that woman's questions. "So...are you an introvert?" "No. I'm a misanthrope."

For those of you who are new to the term, a misanthrope (one who subscribes to the views of misanthropy) has a general hatred, disgust, or disdain for the human species or human nature.

The woman stared at me for a moment as if I had just vomited feces and tap-danced a jig around the waste. It was a concept she couldn't wrap her mind around. How could anyone not like the human race...especially a human?

Well, my friend, I'm here to tell you there are a lot of ways. Look at the news today and tell me you think the human species is a-okay. Many of us beat, mutilate, and murder each other for pleasure. We force others into indentured servitude and slavery for profit and power (and if you think these things aren't happening in today's world...think again). We rape, we steal, we care only about wealth. On a grand scale, the human species do more horrible things to each other than any other species on the planet. Mice might cannibalize one another for food, but not for pleasure. Squirrels may rape each other as part of their mating ritual (that's a little sad), but not to prove dominance and power over someone else.

Yet, all of these are very "high concept" reasons to hate the human species. Most of us don't have first-hand experience with any of this (though, I can tell you...I do). It isn't any of these high concept reasons that makes me look at the species to which I belong and feel like I want to crawl into a hole and bury myself under a rock.

On the's all the time working in customer service that makes me hate the human species.

I want you to engage your imagination for a moment. Imagine you work at the mall. Let's say you work at the Orange Julius. It's a kiosk in the middle of the mall. You arrive for your shift in the morning. Most of the stores are still closed, the gates are down, but some lights are one and you can see one or two employees prepping their stores for the day. Your friend Susan, who works across the hall at The Gap, folds sweaters that have been cast aside by someone because they were either too large or too small. Rather than refold the sweaters correctly, the customer simply dropped the fabric into a pile on the table and left it for someone else to take care of. On the other side of the hallway, the cranky lady who works at Ann Taylor Loft is running a bissell over the carpet, sucking up popcorn kernels. You have cup rings and smoothie film to wipe up off the counter.

You see a handful of old ladies with blue hair and orthodics waddle their way down the halls, walking fast, but not as fast as they talk. You're careful to leave most of the lights off inside your kiosk. It makes cleaning up after the closing shift a little more difficult, but it also reduces the likelihood that some random shmoe will think you've opened early and try to order a smoothie before you've even had a chance to count your cash drawer, or turn on the machines.

Most days keeping the lights off works, but not today. Today, somewhere around a quarter to ten, a school bus off-loads an battalion of children who race, screaming, into the mall. Inwardly you groan. The last you need is a handful of screaming junior-high kids...they're always loud, they always want the most elaborate drinks, and they always want them NOW! Forget parental supervision. The school chaperons are glad enough to get them off the bus and out of their hair.

Instead of scowling, however (you don't want to be like the woman at Ann Taylor), you force a smile across your face and think, It's close enough to ten anyway. When you see ten of the kids racing for your kiosk, you slide your drawer into the cash register, straighten your hat, and flip on your lights. Boy, golly, do those kids have a lot of energy. And it's not just them, either. There must be something in the air, in the water, somewhere. You spend the next eight hours of your shift struggling to keep up with the customers.

There are so many you can barely keep up with the I'll haves and the Why don't you give mes. Never once do you hear May I, or Please. There are a couple random Thank yous, but they are few and far between. At noon your bladder gives you a little nudge as if it's trying to tell you something, but then the lunch rush pushes through and it isn't until sometime after two o'clock that you even remember you have a bladder.

When you're colleague doesn't arrive to relieve you at four, you start to worry, but there's not much time to dwell on what is and what isn't. Your stomach rumbles and you snag what food you can from your own little kiosk before diving right back into the dinner rush. By six-thirty you realize you're probably going to have to close as well. Whatever, it wasn't like you had plans to do anything, anyway.

Susan stopped by your kiosk during her lunch break. You don't get one of work alone, and there's nobody to cover for you until your relief arrives (if they arrive). As much as you like Susan, all you want to do is roll your eyes as you listen to her ramble on about how angry she is with her boyfriend for not consulting her first before he decided to go out tonight. How he should have taken her with him.

After you clean up your kiosk and make your way through the rear exit of the mall, you run have to listen to the other mall employees complaining about this or that. It's too hot. It's too cold. This store ran out of that sale item. This woman doesn't like the way that woman looked at her.

You're exhausted and all you want is some peace and quiet where you don't have to listen to another human voice...but you can't have that. You have to go home to your family and listen to their problems and their issues. The television will probably be blasting in the living room. Everyone will probably want to tell you about their day, or ask your advice or opinion on this or that.

All you want is to be left alone.

Now, wallow in that feeling for a moment. Your feet are tired. Your ears are ringing. You've just spent twelve hours putting all of your own needs aside to offer someone else--a random stranger--the opportunity to be served by a pleasant and helpful person. Sure, you faked most of it, but that's your job. Forget about eating. Forget about going to the bathroom. You know your job is to make these people feel welcome. To smile at them and get them their orders as quickly as possible. They are the one's who are always right because they are the ones who are paying you to serve them.

You feel beaten down. Asleep on your feet. Broken. You feel like a non-person, like some faceless entity--a robot--The Orange Julius guy (or gal). They don't know your name. They probably couldn't pick you out of a lineup. They got what they wanted from you, they used you, then they went on their merry way. You are nothing to them. Nobody. If you weren't there, some other nameless, faceless entity would have taken your place and they would have their demands met anyway.

Repeat that experience. Repeat it every day. Five or six days a week. Ever week. Repeat it for thirteen hundred weeks. One thousand three hundred. That's almost eight thousand days. Pick up straw wrappers after the people who couldn't seem to see the trash receptacle staring them in the face six inches away. Do it five times a day for eight thousand days. Would you wonder how it was, after forty thousand attempts, nobody seems to be able to find that trash can? Mop the floor after some kid whose parents let him carry his own cup, even though he was too small to hold it. Do that twice a week for twenty-five years. After over two-thousand mops jobs, would you want to be around those kids?

Spend sixty-five-thousand hours serving, catering, flattering, smiling to the people who demand a thing because they have money to spend and stomachs to fill. Sixty-five-thousand hours listening to Give me, and I'll take. Sixty-five-thousand hours being packs and droves of greedy, self-important, and self-centered human beings, of watching the worst come out in those human beings: the tantrums over an out-of-stock product, the self-important beliefs that their order is more important than your need to relieve your bladder, the dickering over product prices as if you have any control over how much a large Julius costs or as if they really can't afford a dollar forty five.

Do that, and then tell me you want to spend any time with the human race.

After twenty-five years of faking my smile, of telling people what they want to hear or risk losing my job, of holding my bladder and listening to my stomach rumble, all for the sake of driving the human race's desires for consumerism, all I want to do is find a dark room somewhere, line the walls with acoustic foam, and sit in the silence and the darkness and never see another soul again.

That might seem extreme, and I want to make something perfectly clear. I like a person. There are persons I could tolerate for long periods of time. One on one connections made with a single individual...a friend. But people, as a whole, are terrible. I have to be introverted, not because I only have the one friend, but because I spend so much of my life forcing myself to be extroverted for work that I don't really care to associate with other people.

I've had my fill of people by the day's end (usually before the day has actually started, in most cases).

So, my misanthropy really has less to do with those high concept ideas (though they are there, don't misunderstand me...if I didn't have the smaller reason, the larger reasons are still valid); no, my misanthropy deals specifically with the fact that, for twenty-five years I have been nothing but an indentured servant to a sea of random strangers demanding something from me at every turn.

Is it any wonder that the moment I find myself in front of another human being I begin to wonder what it is they want from me? It's all I've ever known.