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The View's Different From the Other End of the Line

September 26, 2003|Chelsea Lowe | Chelsea Lowe is a freelance writer in Massachusetts.

You could almost hear telephones being slammed down as the 50 million Americans who signed up for the national "do-not-call" list heard federal court rulings Tuesday and Thursday that the proposed registry was illegal. To those people, telemarketers are the scourge of society.

But I see things differently. For 10 years I made my living as a telemarketer. Working for a nonprofit organization, I called only current members, but these donors often treated me as badly as they would any solicitor on cold-call sales.

A Google search on the Internet for "telemarketing" revealed instructions for harassing the hard-working slobs who make the calls, along with characterizations of telephone workers as "lower forms of life." A search for "muggers," on the other hand, revealed mostly jokes and movie information.

Believe me, I did not get any kind of sick thrill from interrupting your dinner. Nor did I relish hearing: "Not interested." Slam.

Or, "Why don't you give me your home number so I can call you when you're eating dinner?" (Chances are, I was eating "dinner" -- probably yogurt, which is cheap and quiet -- while I tried to earn enough money to get by.

Or a loud "BEEEEEP!" as a donor deliberately hit phone buttons to make noise in my ear. (In fact, when these prospects made their donations, they gave us their numbers. To get off the calling list for good, ask.)

And, of course, every comic, cartoonist and columnist has to take a shot at you.

"Dialing for dollars" supported me through graduate school, an ad agency layoff and a fledgling freelance career. I was unemployed when I started, broke and living in a place I called "the mouse house."

When the company added health and dental benefits in return for a minimum of 16 hours worked a week, I became theirs.

You may imagine a call center as a giant room of headsets and losers. The occasional nut, absolutely. But we were an interesting lot: There was the confident, carousing Harvard man who rummaged through dumpsters for rejected treasure; the payroll manager who happily drove me to the airport at 6 a.m. one August morning; the young mom who made everyone feel fascinating; the no-nonsense librarian who became my friend and executor. Even my bosses proved equally kind and engaging.

Weary donors often lost the ability to distinguish membership renewal requests from uninvited sales calls. Anyone who worked the phones long enough got cursed at, lied to, screamed at and called names.

A little tip: It's unwise to give an organization your address and phone number, then berate the low-level employee into whose hands that information falls. I made note of mean people's numbers with an eye toward some clever revenge. I never carried out these ideas; I just liked knowing I could. Maybe I'm funny that way: Mistreatment seldom brings out my better impulses.

Even when prospects spoke politely and made donations, the work was stultifying. One afternoon, I told my boss I needed to run an errand, then drove for three hours, at last reaching a quiet town two states away -- and my wisest career decision yet. I knew I couldn't afford to quit. But I did.

Telemarketing gave me a steady income, the camaraderie of friends and the chance to talk, every now and then, with truly interesting people. But I don't miss it a bit. To be sure, I don't miss people who taught their children to lie or say rude things. Certainly, I don't miss the automated dialer with its hesitations that left prospects repeating, "Hello? Hello?"

Thursday, Congress rushed through a bill to overcome Tuesday's court decision, but to no avail: A second court blocked the registry anew, on free-speech grounds. My feelings about "do-not-call" legislation are mixed. I like to imagine, in some alternate universe, a "treat-telemarketers-politely" law with a "you-might-have-to-do-this-work-yourself-someday" rider.

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