What kinds of life experiences open us up to empathy? One of my own, which in part inspired me to write my new book, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, took place when I had a horrible job working in telesales in Sydney after I left university. Here’s what I learned…
Something like this has probably happened to you. It is a quarter to seven on a Tuesday evening. You are cooking dinner and, at the same time, trying to get your overtired five-year-old to put on her pyjamas. The phone rings. It could be your mother. But in all probability it is somebody trying to sell you something. You pick up the phone. ‘Hello, is that ____ ?’ Your name is mispronounced. You were right. Telesales. You interrupt their pitch, telling them you’re not interested before you even know what they’re calling about. They ask for just a few minutes of your time. You respond, impatiently, that you’re busy cooking and that you’re not interested. And the moment they start replying, you hang up.
Being abrupt or rude to telesales people is quite normal. One of the gentlest, most thoughtful people I know usually responds with irritation, ‘Could you please give me your phone number so I can phone you during your dinner?’
Such unsolicited calls can feel like an invasion of our private space. I’ve felt as annoyed and impatient as anyone else when my evenings are interrupted by a random call from a stranger in Delhi or Dublin. But there is something that usually stops me from hanging up, or pretending that I’m only a visitor and that the homeowner is away: I’ve worked in telesales myself and I know what it is like.
When I left university, over two decades ago, my first job was working in the kitchen of a barbeque chicken and sandwich shop in Sydney. After an exhausting twelve-hour shift with only fifteen minutes for lunch, I was fired at the end of day one for not putting the chickens on the skewers straight. My second job – and my third, fourth and fifth – were in telesales. I began by selling a children’s encyclopaedia, then moved on to laser printer toner, a tax advice kit and, finally, photocopying machines.
I hated it. Every day, around an hour before work started, I began feeling sick in my stomach. In the office we were handed pages ripped from phone books and ordered to dial. The duty manager paced around, listening in to our conversations, gesturing to us to ‘close’ the sale, or shouting at us to get back on the phone and reach our targets, otherwise we wouldn’t be receiving any commission. And, of course, almost every person I called wanted to get off the phone straight away. I could hear the annoyance in their voices. Most nights we were subject to serious verbal abuse. Yet I didn’t feel I could leave: I needed the money and telesales paid better than a factory job or working as a shop assistant.
This is an experience I have never forgotten. Now, when I pick up the phone and realise it is a salesperson, I picture the caller sitting in a cubicle with my first duty manager glaring aggressively over their shoulder. I know they are probably only doing it for the money and that they would rather be visiting their sister and her new baby, or studying for a Masters degree in systems engineering. But they feel they have no choice – they need the job.
So while part of me wants to immediately press the red button and end the call, I do my best to focus on the caller and treat them with decency. In an effort to make a personal connection, I sometimes find out their name and where they are phoning from, which can lead to surprising – if usually short – conversations about their lives, and my own. I nearly always tell them that I know what their job is like, because I’ve done it too, and I wish them well with the rest of their calls. Imagining myself into their lives and showing a little respect is the least I can do to bridge our faceless digital divide.
Such brief encounters with strangers may, at first glance, seem trivial affairs. But I believe they are the beginnings of a revolution that can weave the world together into an invisible tapestry of human connection.
© copyright Roman Krznaric 2014
Roman Krznaric is a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living. His new book is Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.