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What Do You Want From Us?

In 1998, about six months before I moved to Berlin, I got a full-time job at a call center in the Embarcadero for a company called Aegis. The company offered a mortgage acceleration program; they took people’s mortgage payments out of their bank accounts with a certain amount consistently added on top of the principle, so their mortgage was paid off at a faster rate. The program was on the pricey side and stupid really, since in theory anyone could do this by themselves. But I didn’t really mind it because we were allowed to be honest. When people called to ask questions about the program, we were supposed to tell them: Sir/Ma’am, I’m sure you’re asking yourself at this point, “Can’t I just do this myself?” And the answer is yes, of course you can. But our question is will you?

If they said yes we told them, “Well, good for you,” and moved on to another call. But a fair amount of people admitted they knew they wouldn’t and a fraction of this number enrolled in the program.

These days Silicon Valley has San Francisco firmly by the balls, the talk on the street all Google van and venture capatalists, another tech bro-intended condo highrise undoubtedly springing up as I type this sentence, taking over SoMa like a particularly malignant, fast growing cancerous growth. Save a few stubborn bastards, most of the San Francisco’s arty, alternative folk  have long since hightailed out of there, their DIY macrame sign reading “Oakland, Brooklyn, Portland or Bust.”

But back in 1998 there were still plenty of them in the City: artists with questionable hygiene making experimental sculptures out of spray painted egg cartons, bands whose members wore woolen scarves all year round, considering themselves next generation Oasis, though they were mostly too stoned to remember lyrics or chord changes when they played for beer.

Late 90s San Franciso, full of artists and flakes and flaky artists, and many of them were my co-workers at Aegis. Not that it wasn’t hard for them even then, in the middle of the dot-com revolution (not yet known as the dot-com bubble), the rent prices so high and housing so scarce, many of my artistically inclined co-workers could barely afford the rent on a closet with what we made at Aegis.

Then again, in San Francisco nowadays  the same price would probably only cover the rent on a fish bowl—and you’d still have to share it with the fish.

At Aegis we had a mute button on our headset, most likely in case we had cough or clear or throat or answer a question to someone in the office when we were on the phone. I, of course, was an angel and did no such thing, but some of my co-workers used the mute button to insult particularly annoying potential clients. If some jerk was on the line, they’d mute it for a second and say something like, “Holy fuck. Did your mother actually give birth to you?” or “Suck my gonads, you mother rucking son of a toad fucker,” then unmute it and say, “Yes, sir. I understand your concerns.”

Doing the work, I also learned a lot about the country. Southerners always made for the best stories. Like one from Georgia a co-worker once had on the line, a co-worker I had an intense affair with before I left, who I was still in love with a long time after I had moved to Berlin, but that’s another story. Anyway, my intense love affair co-worker told the woman from Georgia the usual spiel about the program we always told everyone and then….silence. He thought for a minute she’d hung up but then she said (imagine a thick Georgia drawl): “Oh my Lord. Oh. My. Lord!” Like he’d told her the rapture had begun and here was her golden ticket, Peter’s waiting to let you through the gates. Not some generic spiel about what was surely one of the lamest programs ever.

My absolutely favorite Aegis story is about another Southerner, a woman from Texas. Since these were still pre-smart phone days—when I wanted to contact my intense love affair co-worker, I paged his beeper—we asked people to get an actual real calendar so we could better walk them through the different payment schedules we offered. Anyway, the co-worker asked the woman from Texas if she could get a calendar and she said, “Sure thing.” Then he waits…and waits…and waits. The woman doesn’t come back, but what does he care? The line is still active and as long as he stays on he doesn’t have to take another call. Close to a half an hour later, a man got on the phone.

Man: “Hello?”

Co-worker: “Hello sir. I was speaking to your wife I presume. I was telling her about our mortgage accelerator program. Do you know when she’ll return to the phone?”

Man: “Well I don’t know. She told me she was going to the store to buy a calendar.”

Hilariously clueless as they sometimes were, Southerners were at least always very polite. The same couldn’t be said about New Yorkers. Whenever anyone called from New York, and I swear they were always guys named Anthony, they always talked over me at breakneck-speed, not listening to a word I said and treating me like they couldn’t believe I was wasting their time like this. Although I swear I never used the mute button on any of them, I did always think, “Hey Anthony, what the fuck? You called me.” But I still always managed to stay nicely West Coast on their ass, chiming in with plenty of I’m afraid that’s not possible, If you could please just listen, It seems there’s been a misunderstanding.

But one day one of the New York Anthonys pushed me too far and I snapped.

Me (getting crazy pissy by California standards): “No Anthony that’s not what I said, what I said is this and now you listen.”

But when I said this to him, the most amazing thing happened: New York Anthony stopped pushing me around and actually did listen. He even thanked me at the end of the call.

That’s when it dawned on me: New Yorkers want you to be rude to them. I never had any trouble with a New York Anthony again.

Fast forward fifteen years into the future.

It’s 2014 and I’m in a bar with a few colleagues I teach Business English with at a software company. We’re mainly there to drink and gossip and bitch, but at some point we start talking about teaching Germans polite telephone phrases in English.

Generally speaking, German culture is incredibly direct. Combine this with the fact that English doesn’t have the Sie (formal you) to create an automatic respectful distance and you’ll find Germans speaking English often sound, well, rude.

When a German talks on the phone in English, it’s usually “want” and never “would like.” They might be the sweetest, most soft spoken person in the world, but still, they won’t say, “I’m sorry, he’s not here right now, but would you like to leave a message?” they’ll say, “He’s not here. Should I tell him something?”

Instead of starting a call with, “How can I help you?,” they’re more likely to say, “What do you want from us?”

While the waitress delivers my second White Russian, I mention to my colleagues I always work a lot with my students on telephone language and modals for exactly this reason.

But my colleague from Queens rolls his eyes.

Colleague from Queens: Oh, come on. We don’t really use those kind of polite phrases on the telephone in English.

Me: I do.

Canadian colleague: So do I.

British colleague: Are you joking?

Sorry not-named-Anthony New Yorker: you’re outnumbered.

Next time Florian and Karin do a telephone role play in my course and they unintentionally end up sounding so rude the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, in his honor I’ll say to them:

“If you talk to someone like that in English on the telephone they might cry or curse your name or both. Unless of course they’re from New York.”


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