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Inside the New York Telephone Company

From October to December 1969 I worked for the New York Telephone Company as a Customer’s Service Representative in the Commercial Department. My office was one of several in the Broadway-City Hall area of lower Manhattan, a flattened, blue-windowed commercial building in which the telephone company occupies three floors. The room was big and brightly lit—like the city room of a large newspaper—with perhaps one hundred desks arranged in groups of five or six around the desk of a Supervisor. The job consists of taking orders for new equipment and services and pacifying customers who complain, on the eleven exchanges (although not the more complex business accounts) in the area between the Lower East Side and 23rd Street on the North and bounded by Sixth Avenue on the West.

My Supervisor is the supervisor of five women. She reports to a Manager who manages four supervisors (about twenty women) and he reports to the District Supervisor along with two other managers. The offices of the managers are on the outer edge of the main room separated from the floor by glass partitions. The District Supervisor is down the hall in an executive suite. A job identical in rank to that of the district supervisor is held by four other men in Southern Manhattan alone. They report to the Chief of the Southern Division, himself a soldier in an army of division chiefs whose territories are the five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester, and the vast hinterlands vaguely referred to as “Upstate.” The executives at—Street were only dozens among the thousands in New York Tel alone.

Authority in their hierarchy is parceled out in bits. A Representative, for example, may issue credit to customers up to, say, $10.00; her supervisor, $25.00; her manager, $100.00; his supervisor, $300.00; and so forth. These employees are in the same relation to the centers of power in AT&T and the communications industry as the White House guard to Richard Nixon. They all believe that “The business of the telephone company is Service” and if they have ever heard of the ABM or AT&T’s relation to it, I believe they think it is the Associated Business Machines, a particularly troublesome customer on the Gramercy-7 exchange.

I brought to the job certain radical interests. I knew I would see “bureaucratization,” “alienation,” and “exploitation.” I knew that it was “false consciousness” of their true role in the imperialist economy that led the “workers” to embrace their oppressors. I believed those things and I believe them still. I know why, by my logic, the workers should rise up. But my understanding was making reality an increasing puzzle: Why didn’t people move? What things, invisible to me, were holding them back? What I hoped to learn, in short, was something about the texture of the industrial system: what life within it meant to its participants.

I deliberately decided to take a job which was women’s work, white collar, highly industrialized and bureaucratic. I knew that New York Tel was in a management crisis notorious both among businessmen and among the public and I wondered what effect the well-publicized breakdown of service was having on employees. Securing the position was not without hurdles. I was “overqualified,” having confessed to college; I performed better on personnel tests than I intended to do; and I was inspected for symptoms of militance by a shrewd but friendly interviewer who noticed the several years’ gap in my record of employment. “What have you been doing lately?” she asked me. “Protesting?” I said: “Oh, no, I’ve been married,” as if that condition itself explained one’s neglect of social problems. She seemed to agree that it did.

My problem was to talk myself out of a management traineeship at a higher salary while maintaining access to the job I wanted. This, by fabrications, I was able to do. I said: “Well, you see, I’m going through a divorce right now and I’m a little upset emotionally, and I don’t know if I want a career with managerial responsibility.” She said: “If anyone else said that to me, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to hire them,” but in the end she accepted me. I had the feeling it would have been harder for her to explain to her bosses why she had let me slip away, given my qualifications, than to justify to them her suspicions.

I nonetheless found as I began the job that I was viewed as “management material” and given special treatment. I was welcomed at length by both the District Supervisor and the man who was to be my Manager, and given a set of fluffy feminist speeches about “opportunities for women” at New York Tel. I was told in a variety of ways that I would be smarter than the other people in my class; “management” would be keeping an eye on me. Then the Manager led me personally to the back classroom where my training program was scheduled to begin.

The class consisted of five students and an instructor. Angela and Katherine were two heavy-set Italian women in their late forties. They had been promoted to Commercial after years of employment as clerks in the Repair Department where, as Angela said, “they were expected to be robots.” They were unable to make the transition to the heavier demands of the Representative’s job and returned to Repair in defeat after about a week.

Billy was a high-school boy of seventeen who had somehow been referred by company recruiters into this strange women’s world. His lack of adult experience made even simple situations difficult for him to deal with: he could not tell a customer that she had to be in the apartment when an installer was coming without giggling uncontrollably about some imaginary tryst. He best liked “drinking with the boys,” a pack of Brooklyn high schoolers whose alcoholism was at the Singapore Sling stage; he must have belonged to one of the last crowds in Brooklyn that had never smoked dope.

Betty was a pretty, overweight, intelligent woman in her mid-twenties who had been a Representative handling “Billing” and was now being “crosstrained” (as they say in the Green Berets) in Orders. She was poised, disciplined, patient, ladylike, competent in class and, to me, somewhat enigmatic outside it: liberal about Blacks, in spite of a segregated highschool education, but a virtual Minuteman about Reds, a matter wholly outside her experience. By the end of the class Betty and I had overcome our mutual skepticism enough to be almost friends and if there is anyone at the phone company to whom I feel slightly apologetic—for having listened always with a third ear and for masquerading as what I was not—it is Betty.

Sally, the instructor, was a pleasant, stocky woman in her early thirties with a frosted haircut and eyes made up like a racoon. She had a number of wigs, including one with strange dangling curls. Sally’s official role was to persuade us of the rationality of company policies and practices, which she did skillfully and faithfully. In her private life, however, she was a believer in magic, an aficionado rather than a practitioner only because she felt that while she understood how to conjure up the devil, she did not also know how to make him go away. To Sally a disagreeable female customer was not oppressed, wretched, impoverished in her own life, or merely bitchy: she was—literally—a witch. Sally explained to herself by demonology the existence of evils of which she was far too smart to be unaware.

The Representative’s course is “programmed.” It is apparent that the phone company has spent millions of dollars for high-class management consultation on the best way to train new employees. The two principal criteria are easily deduced. First, the course should be made so routine that any employee can teach it. The teacher’s material—the remarks she makes, the examples she uses—are all printed in a loose-leaf notebook that she follows. Anyone can start where anyone else leaves off. I felt that I could teach the course myself, simply by following the program. The second criterion is to assure the reproducibility of results, to guarantee that every part turned out by the system will be interchangeable with every other part. The system is to bureaucracy what Taylor was to the factory: it consists of breaking down every operation into discrete parts, then making verbal the discretions that are made.

At first we worked chiefly from programmed booklets organized around the principle of supplying the answer, then rephrasing the question. For instance:

It is annoying to have the other party to a conversation leave the line without an explanation.

Before leaving, you should excuse yourself and—what you are going to do.

Performing skillfully was a matter of reading, and not actual comprehension. Katherine and Angela were in constant difficulty. They “never read,” they said. That’s why it was hard for them.

Soon acting out the right way to deal with customers became more important than self-instruction. The days were organized into Lesson Plans, a typical early one being: How to Respond to a Customer if You Haven’t Already Been Trained to Answer his Question, or a slightly more bureaucratic rendering of that notion. Sally explained the idea, which is that you are supposed to refer the call to a more experienced Representative or to the Supervisor. But somehow they manage to complicate this situation to the point where it becomes confusing even for an intelligent person to handle it. You mustn’t say: “Gosh, that’s tough, I don’t know anything about that, let me give the phone to someone who does,” though that in effect is what you do. Instead when the phone rings, you say: “Hello. This is Miss Langer. May I help you?” (The Rule is, get immediate “control of the contact” and hold it lest anything unexpected happen, like, for instance, a human transaction between you and the customer.)

He says: “This is Mr. Smith and I’d like to have an additional wall telephone installed in my kitchen.”

You say: “I’ll be very glad to help you, Mr. Smith (Rule the Second: Always express interest in the Case and indicate willingness to help), but I’ll need more information. What is your telephone number?”

He tells you, then you confess: “Well, Mr. Smith, I’m afraid I haven’t been trained in new installations yet because I’m a new representative, but let me give you someone else who can help you.” (Rule the Third: You must get his consent to this arrangement. That is, you must say: May I get someone else who can help you? May I put you on hold for a moment?)

The details are absurd but they are all prescribed. What you would do naturally becomes unnatural when it is codified, and the rigidity of the rules makes the Representatives in training feel they are stupid when they make mistakes. Another lesson, for example, was: What to Do if a Customer Calls and Asks for a Specific Person, such as Miss Smith, another Representative, or the Manager. Whatever the facts, you are to say “Oh, Miss Smith is busy but I have access to your records, may I help you?” A customer is never allowed to identify his interests with any particular employee. During one lesson, however, Sally said to Angela: “Hello, I’d like immediately to speak to Mrs. Brown,” and Angela said, naturally, “Hold the line a minute, please. I’ll put her on.” A cardinal sin, for which she was immediately rebuked. Angela felt terrible.

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