We Will Be Happy to Help You With That
I did, in fact work at the call center. It was only for about two days, and if I recall correctly the pay was nine dollars an hour plus bonuses. We were soliciting donations for public television in Buffalo, from the hours of 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. A curious reader might ask why it makes sense to solicit donations during business hours, to which I would simply reply that we were essentially targeting the elderly.
Targeting? Well, that part was a bit sinister. Part of my training, which included a manager playing an employee’s recorded call for us and exclaiming that he was going to choke him out later that day for doing it wrong, involved a series of psychological manipulation techniques, including talking faster and louder than the person on the phone. We were also told to ask them a number of questions in quick succession to confuse them. Again, these were primarily senior citizens on the other end of the line. I quit on day 3. This would obviously not be my last job in which I dealt with the public, while it would end up being my shortest. It is, ironically, not even the job which I want to discuss today in my exploration of Sorry to Bother You. When I sat down to check the movie out, I was immediately reminded of one of the more harrowing aspects of my time in the hospitality industry. Namely, what the characters in the film name “the script”. While it seems obvious that call center workers would read from a script and respond to different developments in a conversation with prepared lines, viewers unfamiliar with the service sector might not be aware of how widespread this practice is across our entire economy. In fact, almost all low wage workers have a specific set of phrases they’re required to use when interacting with “the public”, and one can make an argument that this experience could be one of the building blocks of how we reimagine working class identity for the 21st century, the feeling of a script omnipresent in the back of your mind.
Sometime toward the end of my 5 year tenure as a valet captain, it was decided that me and the other valet guys must now use a specific set of scripted dialog guidelines. These guidelines were given to the company by the corporate bodies governing the various hotels we were contracted at, which created a very unfortunate scenario wherein we had to remember a different set of phrases based on which hotel we were scheduled at. In my case, I often traveled to different locations to deal with service problems and other disasters, which meant I had to remember what script I was reading from. More on this later. That wasn’t the worst part, though. The worst part was that it became my job to train everyone on the script, and what words and phrases to use in which situations. This was extremely difficult, as many of the men and women working under me spoke English as their second language, and had little grasp of the more obscure differences between different phrases. At the last place I worked, I resorted to simply teaching them a few key phrases and making sure they knew how to pronounce them. Sometimes, when secret shoppers came to the hotel and the valet guys failed to use the correct dialog, I would get a shrieking phone call at 9 am on a Sunday explaining how profoundly I had failed at such a vital task. Yes, of course, I was off on Sundays.
I had a very different experience of the script than my Bangladeshi and Iraqi colleagues. Being that I had a stronger grasp of the speech conventions required by the script, I had an easier time integrating them into my daily speech. Beyond that, I had been given specific instructions about posture and affectation, which also over the years became second nature. After a while, I found myself able to have an entire conversation or meeting “on script.” This is probably why the discussions of “the script” and the “white voice” gave me chills when I saw Sorry to Bother You, because my own experience showed me that, as Cassius learns later in the film, what is named a “voice” or a “script” actually constitutes an entire (albeit feigned) personality. One might even go so far as to say that the performed “white voice” is its own way of being in the world.
In case the reader is unaware, I myself am white. This means my speech wasn’t policed the same way by the hospitality machine as my black and brown colleagues, and I didn’t find the phrasing of the script quite as alien. This, however, was an important part of the experience. At many of the locations where I worked, I was the only white person. This means that a particular performance of white masculinity, specifically that of power over and domination of bodies of color, was an inextricable part of my own script. We laugh when Cassius “sells out” in the film, but those of us who have worked in these jobs know that very often the ladder to success consists primarily of one’s boot on the necks of others. In my own case, agreeing to “get the valet guys in line” and “give them some discipline” was what got me a raise from eleven to fifteen dollars an hour, and at a certain point I was even sought out as a “fixer” who could resolve discipline and performance issues at a given hotel. All this for roughly 400 dollars a week after taxes. This, to me, was what I got from Sorry to Bother You, a frightening image of how the mask we wear “on the clock” after a while can become our face. After a while, it can be hard to tell the difference between the script and oneself. My question is this, how can you and I go “off script” today?