Working, by Studs Terkel (BOOK TWO, Part 1 – Communications)

A long line of switchboard operators.


Sharon Atkins (Receptionist)

By far the most interesting person in this part of Book Two, Atkins had me saying to myself, “Damn, the interview is over? I could read a whole book from this woman!” I felt like I really knew and related to her. Indeed, by the time the interview was done Atkins had said much of what I felt or could identify with in our modern world, let’s start here:

I don’t think they’d ever hire a male receptionist. They’d have to pay him more, for one thing. You can’t pay someone who does what I do very much. It isn’t economically feasible. (Laughs) You’re just there to filter people and filter telephone calls. You’re there just to handle the equipment.

You’re treated like a piece of equipment, like the telephone.

(BOOK TWO, p. 29, emphasis mine)

The feeling of dejection, loss of personal autonomy and (perhaps worse) your sense of identity is a theme common in the book and in this section is echoed by at least two people (including Atkins). When we work jobs that are repetitive, monotonous and yet quickly paced it’s easy to get burned out and feel like a literal cog.

We work and work without delay or stop. We have to keep working until we’re either lucky to have a break (which, as we’ll see, some folks in this section aren’t) or just about to end our shift. As the night trudges on, we’re more and more likely to start getting kinks in our own machinery and be worn down by the countless demands.

Managers will often have little patience for things not working correctly and perhaps even less for their fellow humans not working correctly. Whether it’s a lack of imagination, empathy or something else, the people up top often don’t care  that the machines they want us to be is an unrealistic goal.

Atkins describes most of the people as “non”. If they’re not kind and they’re not nasty then they don’t really exist for her. I’m sure this sentiment resonates with many, it certainly resonated with me and my own feelings about a lot of the customers I see at my workplace as being “non”. Some of them I can get a shallow relationship with because I can see them (unlike Atkins) and there are often repeat customers (again, unlike with Atkins).

But even these “relationships” are fairly one-note. They’re based on quick and easy one-liners, tropes and jokes that eventually become as stale as the job itself. What’s expected of the relationship comes along with the job, instead of being a fun part of the job that might feel independent from it in some way.

One of the most heartbreaking things for me was how Atkins’ job affects her way of speaking outside of it:

I never answer the phone at home. It carries over. The way I talk to people on the phone has changed. Even when my mother calls, I don’t talk to her very long. I want to see people to talk to them. But now, when I see them, I talk to them like I was talking on the telephone.

It isn’t a conscious process. I don’t know what’s happened. When I’m talking to someone at work, the telephone rings, and the conversations is interrupted. So I never bother finishing sentences or finishing thoughts. I always have this feeling of interruption. (BOOK TWO, p. 30)

That “interruption” is what interests me most here. It made me snicker to myself and think of “Girl, Interrupted” (which I’ve not seen nor read for the record) but it’s also got me thinking about how I feel “interruptions” in my own life. I feel a new level of respect and empathy to retail workers in other stores whenever I see them and especially when I need their help.

Other than that, I’m unsure in what ways working at the store I’ve been at for over a year (yuck) is changing me. Maybe it takes more time or perhaps I too have had unconscious changes since starting the job and I just haven’t noticed it yet.

As far as I can tell, at least as of right now, all that’s really changed is my ever-growing sympathy and empathy for the retail workers of the world and the shit they have to go through. I don’t think my conversational patterns have changed dramatically but then I also talk to people like I normally talk to people when I’m at work.

Sure, there are customers who are non, just like with Atkins. But there are also some customers who I can make jokes with or around, maybe tell them an interesting fact or ask them a question. There’s some constraints on all of this and especially when there is a big line and it’s busy.

But generally, I can always find a way to sneak my bit of personality into the conversations I’m forced to have as a customer service associate.

I found this interesting:

Just to fill in time, I write real bad poetry or write letters to myself and to other people and never mail them. The letters are fantasies, sort of rambling, how I feel,m how depressed I am. (BOOK TWO, p. 30)

I have similar quirks in that I’ll tell really bad jokes, poke fun at my co-workers or even (sometimes) openly mock the store I work in. Sometimes I’ll use my imagination (Atkins is right that this is important for any boring job) to imagine fantastic scenarios in my head to keep me from getting too bored. Or sometimes my head will replay events that have recently happened that make me happy, so I can at least feel that wave of happiness for a little bit.

I could keep writing about Atkins (and her interview is only 4 pages!) but I think this is a suitable quote to entice you to read the rest of her interview:

The machine dictates. This crummy little machine with buttons on it—you’ve got to be there to answer it. You can walk away from it and pretend you don’t hear it, but it pulls you. You know you’re not doing anything, not doing a hell of a lot for anyone. You job doesn’t mean anything. Because you’re just a little machine. A monkey could do what I do. It’s really unfair to ask someone to do that.

(BOOK TWO, pp. 30-31)

Frances Swenson (Hotel Switchboard Operator)

It says a lot about this chapter that Swenson is probably the most positive person despite the fact that her overall perception of the field she works in is mixed, to say the least. While Swenson ultimately upholds the harmful idea that we should all do our best, whatever our wages may be or how we are treated, she also does say that the wages are far too low and that switchboard operators (at least where she works) are generally not respected enough by management.

Swenson also makes repeated mentions of how people don’t appreciate the jobs like she and other old ladies at the hotel do. But when you’re underpaid, denied a raise by the higher ups and mistreated by management and customers alike, it’s hard to see why you would care a lot about the job, especially when you’re young and may have other options.

Towards the beginning of the interview Swenson denotes the emotional labor that they’re all expected to do:

You have to have a nice smiling voice. You can’t be angry or come in like you’ve been out the night before. (Laughs.) You always have to be pleasant—no matter how bad you feel.

(BOOK TWO, p. 32)

I’m not sure why someone wouldn’t realize how taxing this can be on some people, but then again perhaps Swenson is just used to this sort of process. Perhaps she has dulled her sense of dissatisfaction with that part of the job and just accepted it as a kind of necessary evil. She doesn’t say anything about this explicitly, but that’s my speculation.

As I noted earlier, breaks are something of a fiction when it comes to the field of communications. Swenson says that you don’t even get a 15 minute break. There’s also the side-effects of not wanting to eat because the only place Swenson can eat is full of “constant conversations” (p. 34) and reminds her of her job, which clearly overwhelms her.

One thing that was funny to me was that Swenson said this:

Anybody that has done switchboard like switchboard. It’s not lonesome. You’re talking to people. You ask another switchboard operator, they like it. (BOOK TWO, p. 34)

It’s funny not only because of the previous interview with Atkins but because Swenson explicitly talks about people who fool around, people who have quit and even her own issues with the job. It strikes me as bizarre that she would claim that everyone who has done switchboard would enjoy it. Again, when you work in a profession that’s underpaid, undervalued and overwhelming, it isn’t hard to see why some folks may not like it.

Heather Lamb (Telephone Operator)

Something important to note (and it caught me off guard at first) is that Lamb isn’t even 18 and works while she is in high school and 40 during the summertime. I know this is the norm for many people when they were growing up but I was lucky enough to have a mother who didn’t push for me to get a job while I was in high school.

As a result I was able to focus on my intellectual passions. I explored more music, I spent a lot of time with my friends, I played a lot of video games and I was able to pursue things like bass guitar and other hobbies such as reading. This isn’t a reality that many people growing up had and it’s still not something some folks have, which is jarring to me. But perhaps it shouldn’t given how common it may be (I’m unaware of the statistics on the matter).

Regardless, remember how Swenson said everyone who does switchboards because you can talk to people?

Listen to what Lamb has to say about that idea (indirectly, she’s not responding to Swenson as far as I know):

You come into contact with at least thirty-five an hour. You can’t exchange any ideas with them. They don’t know you, they never will. You eel like you might be missing people. you eel like they put a cpoin in the machine and they’ve got you. You’re there to perform your service and go. You’re kind of detached.

(BOOK TWO, p. 36)

On the other hand, maybe that level of talking to people is all folks like Swenson needs. For people like Lamb and Atkins, this level of discourse with the outside world feels hollow and lonesome. But for Swenson it feels like warmth and company. I know I’d feel more like Lamb and Atkins but I find it encouraging that there are at least some people who can enjoy the “shallow” conversations or what they are and still feel like they’re meaningful.

I don’t know if that makes one person more introverted than the other or perhaps introversion has nothing to do with this conversation and it’s just a matter of your expectations. For folks like Lamb and Atkins they want something more meaningful out of their job. But Swenson is just happy to hear a voice and talk to someone, even i the conversation is fairly same-old time after time. Perhaps that happens with age? I really don’t know for sure.

One thing that really bothers Lamb about her job is that she can never just talk to the customers. She can’t say that she feels bad for them if they’re having a tough time or they’re lonely. Granted, Lamb isn’t a therapist but it’s understandable to have some kind of pain from unresolved sympathy towards people on the other end.

As Lamb says, “I’m a communications person but I can’t communicate.” (p. 36)

I thought the sense of power Lamb sometimes feels during the job was worth highlighting:

Businessmen get very upset if they have to repeat their credit card number. … Sometimes you get mad. Why should this man be yelling at me? I do feel put-down a lot.

But other times there’s a real sense of power. I can tell you when you have to stop talking. You have to pay me the money, I can do this and this to you. You eel that more when you’re talking to people who have to pay for their calls … But with the businessmen you get a feeling of helplessness. He can ruin you.

You’ve got real power over poorer people. They don’t even have a phone, so they can’t complain. This businessman can write a letter to Ma Bell. I’m more tolerant of the people who are calling from a pay phone and haven’t got much money. But businessmen, I make him pay for every second of his call. (Laughs.)

I’m more powerful than him at the moment. (Laughs.)

(BOOK TWO, p. 38)

This is interesting and the most I can relate to it is that I never give soldiers or cops a discount because it’s (evidently) at my discretion. I’ve had managers or co-workers call me out on it (in minor ways) once or twice but as much as I can help it I try to treat cops and people who serve(d) the US military the same as anyone else.

Otherwise I never really feel like I have a ton of power in my job but it’s interesting to look back at a time when people had a lot of power through the phones, back when cellphones weren’t around.

Then again, there’s power to be had in a lot of situations and as Lamb reminds us, sometimes there’s just power in saying, “How’s your day, busy? Has it been a rough day?”

Lamb thanks those sorts of people, as we all should.

Jack Hunter (College Professor, Communications Specialist)

Honestly, I (mostly) re-read this interview and…yeah, it’s a total bore. Hunter is just explaining to us what the profession is like (it’s growing and it’s spreading into various industries) and what he thinks of the Nixon cabinet. He says nothing of his personal job, any interesting stories with students or anything that could be re motley thought-provoking.

Nothing to particularly note here, which is a shame.

Guess this communications professor needs to go back to graduate school, eh?

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