My youngest sister – 10 years my junior – and I, comparing notes some years ago after one of us had had a particularly challenging exchange with Bell Canada, realized that we both had developed what we labelled our “Bell voice.” Our use of this particular tone was not limited to Bell, of course; we’ve each used it in countless other situations, including – occasionally — with our partners and children.
You probably know how it goes. The conversation begins with (misplaced) optimism that things will go well. The initial exchange is pleasant. Then, once the problem or question has been presented, it’s into the rabbit hole that passes for corporate service. There are, apparently, no solutions to the problem, or, even worse, the problem cannot exist because no one has ever called with this situation before.
Before long, the Bell voice begins to emerge: the tone and timbre of the caller’s voice changes; the hapless service representative’s name begins to be used two or three times in each condescending sentence; sarcasm appears; the voice slowly begins to increase in volume.
Then follows, for me, the statement — each word tightly and carefully enunciated – that I have been a Bell customer for nearly half a century, and I will almost certainly change my service to another provider if my problem is not addressed to my satisfaction without delay. At this point, there is no possibility of my being satisfied, so the call ends abruptly, and all those involved leave unhappy.
My ever-patient daughter, who often accompanied me into the Bell store to provide assistance with in-person negotiations, made it a rule of engagement that I was not to use my Bell voice in her presence. I don’t use it nearly as much as I used to but, if I am being honest, I suspect that is because my partner has taken over dealing with Bell and other service representatives.
Where does that embarrassingly mean and rude behaviour come from? I like to think that — most of the time — I am polite, kind and reasonable. I know that the job of the Bell call centre employee is not a great one and that she no doubt makes minimum wage for dealing with customers, like me, who behave unreasonably.
The same is true for the underpaid and overworked grocery store checkout clerk: why should they know what the knobby, weird-looking vegetable (celeriac) is that has just moved down the conveyor belt towards them? And for the restaurant waiter, who I am often tempted to invite to join us at the table, so frequent are their comments about what “we” might want to eat and whether “we” are enjoying our meal.
These are people just doing their jobs, often under trying circumstances. It’s completely unfair for me (or anyone else) to be mean to them and, from a self-interested perspective, it pretty much never leads to the desired outcome of a problem solved, a quick exit from the store or a pleasant meal in a restaurant.
And yet, I and so many others let ourselves be sucked into the trap of bad behaviour.
“Beware your destined mood”
In a recent essay in the Toronto Star, Cathrin Bradbury ponders this tendency. She writes, upon observing some ill-behaved three-quarter-lifers (aka old people) in a Shoppers Drug Mart checkout line:
“Being served seems to bring out our worst, as if anything transactional takes humanity out of the equation and so does not require good manners.”
She goes on to quote English writer and satirist Martin Amis who, in his autobiographical novel, Inside Story, says:
“At a certain point, usually in late middle age, something congeals and solidifies and encysts itself – and that’s your lot, that’s your destiny. You’re going to feel this way for the rest of your life. You have found your destined mood, and it has found you, too.”
Well, I don’t want rudeness to congeal and encyst itself as my destined mood, especially if I consider the possibility that, in my older age, I might have to depend on the assistance and kindness of others. I am going to take Bradbury’s essay as a warning or, perhaps, encouragement. While my Bell voice has been largely silent for the past several years, the mood that inspires it lives on, more or less quietly, in my soul. It’s time to erase it entirely.
To return to Bradbury’s wise words, accompanied by a story about her son having to save her from her own self-admitted impatient and aggrieved state while dealing with a Bell representative on the telephone:
“Doubling down on the most inflexible version of yourself . . . is alluring, especially when confronted with pain or loss or illness or betrayal or disappointment. Life’s knocks come hard and fast the longer you live. . . . But what if we don’t need to fear [our] destined mood but rather welcome it as an arrival? Of who our best self might yet be, the one that people will remember us by?”
That’s a good place to start as 2022 winds down – looking for who our best self might yet be. May mine not include a Bell voice.