When I Give I Give Myself

Appears in Ends Meet, a collection of texts on exchange.

It was with great reluctance and an overwhelming sense of dread, emanating from just behind my navel and spreading ever-outwards from my bowels until it had consumed my entire body, that I descended into the basement of an old converted print house to be taught how to wield a phone to verbally arm wrestle, coerce, guilt-trip and squeeze out what felt like the very last drop of human decency from the person on the other end of the line, in the name of charity fundraising. I lasted three months and I know for a fact that these feeling were shared by the person who picked up the phone to hear me say, “Good afternoon, my name is Sean and I'm calling on behalf of ______.” Connected as we were, ear-to-ear, I could feel them shrink against me.

The anatomy of a phone call was set in stone and its structure gospel. We were given scripts: lines we should memorise so we could effectively and naturally mask the manipulative and careful construction of these so-called conversations. The basic structure of a charity call goes like this: 1) The Introduction: First the caller must confirm they are speaking to the Decision Making Contact (DMC) then they must introduce themselves and the charity they are representing for that particular shift. Having done so, they must then ask permission to talk with the DMC about said charity before hurriedly and breathlessly rushing through the all-calls-are-recorded-for-training-and-monitoring-purposes line so fast that the individual words are barely intelligible but something about its rhythm and timbre is immediately understood, before the DMC can interrupt or find the courage it takes to say no. 2) The Ice Breaker: Here the aim is to build a rapport with the DMC, to glean information that can be used later on in the call to tug at their heartstrings, appeal to their human nature, or be used as an instrument of their own emotional blackmail. All under the guise of this being a two-way conversation. With the DMC’s will now broken comes 3) The Rationale: This is where the caller takes control. The conversation becomes a speech, an open act of proselytising, delivered ex cathedra, while the DMC listens in silence. The charity’s cause must be delivered with passion; the plight of the people, animals or ecosystems they help conveyed with an urgency but must not be rushed so as not to undermine the gravity of the current, ever-on-going crisis – and also to prevent it from sounding like it is being read rather than flowing forth from deep down somewhere between heart and soul. And then inevitably comes 4) The Ask and Negotiation. 5) is Confirm and Close: Regardless of the outcome, the caller must be polite and professional, thank the DMC for their generosity and/or time, but mustn't forget the Data Capture or to read out the required legal statement. Then 6) Hang up and dial again.

There is at the heart of every shit job, every short-term fix turned long-term hold, every demeaning role that others in more secure and enjoyable and fulfilling and well-paid positions refer to as 'rites of passage' or 'character building,' a very clear sacrifice or trade-off. One that is almost too obvious to bother mentioning. In all likelihood you will know this. You will have done this. The majority of my colleagues were performers and naturally predisposed for this line of work: between-roles actors or musicians waiting for their break. To further adhere to the trope, most had, like the rest of us, sacrificed doing what they wanted to be doing in order to be able to afford to live where they wanted to do it – in London. The bleak room in which we took our breaks and had our lunch was plastered with various pleas from their neglected callings: casting announcements, 'band mate needed' posters as well as flyers for gigs or plays from those who had managed to keep their dreams on life support. To make matters worse, the offices were situated above a busy and well-regarded independent theatre whose productions had collected an impressive haul of adjective-laden press quotes. For the would-be performers of the top floor, their dreams were played out every night, tantalisingly close but tormentingly out of reach. As they headed for the bus home they would pass the throbbing crowds pressed up against – and barely contained by – the single pane of glass that dripped with condensation against the cold outside, only to repeat it all over again the next day.

There were others at other stages of their other careers. There was a DJ who told everyone who would listen, and many who wouldn't, just how well his club nights were going, who would warm up in the office he was supervising by playing some shitty drum and bass so loud you could hardly hear the person on the phone, who would then scold you like a child should you mishear what was said. There was an actor who I've since seen in a well-funded beer advert on TV and, in flicking through the channels one day, on Coronation Street. I wonder if he's still there. But by far the most famous among us was a former member of the 90s Irish girl band B*Witched who, as she had reached the level of Supervisor, I calculated must have been there at least three years prior to my arrival. There were inter-office competitions to see who could reference her lyrics in an in-earshot conversation the most before her good humour ran out. When my turn came I could only ever remember a handful of lines from their Number One hit single (itself from a platinum-selling album) C'est La Vie which, despite its upbeat nature and happy-go-lucky sexual undertones, left me feeling empty: it was depressingly prescient of now, of us.

Allow me to present the other side of the argument. First, some stats: The charities that I represented received, if in fact they received anything at all, somewhere in between 0.5-2 percent of their annual funding from the British government. These charities then invest anywhere between 2 and around 25 per cent of the funding they do receive back into fundraising, depending on the size and household name recognition of the charity. The company I worked for promised to earn at least £4 for the charity in return for every £1 they received. With it the charities gave us the moral imperative: The Rationale. Did you know that it costs £10 million a year for Samaritans to run their services, not only by phone, but also in prisons, workplaces, schools and universities near you? Did you know that there are 45,000 deaf or hearing-impaired children in the UK who, without your help, won't be able to communicate with their parents? Were you aware that the number of people Freedom From Torture assists grows by 2,000 every year and that 480 of those will be children and that 100 of those children will be all alone? We at The Red Cross would like you to know that each year 80,000 people are killed by natural disasters and 200 million are annually affected by either conflict or disasters, and if that feels comfortably far away enough for you we'll also help you should the NHS or fire service not be able to cope with large-scale emergencies here at home, and you know how underfunded they are. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what's going on in Syria. Did you know that Merlin has helped more than 1.5 million people in war-torn D. R. Congo, or that they're still there in Bosnia, in Iraq, in Haiti, and that they are right now actively training midwives in Afghanistan so that women need not die in childbirth? Honestly, did you even know that Merlin exists? Well, that's why we're on the phones today.

Once, over a two-day period, all usual proceedings were cancelled and every member of staff who could dial a phone and read a script were given a list of our most loyal donors to ask them for a one-off, on-the-spot credit card donation for the on-going crisis in Syria. It was at a time when the media coverage was at its most intense and pervasive. Hour after hour of live let's-go-out-to-our-correspondent-in-Homs broadcasts of death and destruction meant that we didn't really have to say much. The donors often stopped us to say, “how much would you like?” The most I heard someone give was £500. An elderly lady who I was talking to had once agreed to give £50 but, in the time it took her to find her purse, had changed her mind, and asked, if it wasn't too much hassle, whether she could change it to £100. Bear in mind that this was on top of their monthly Direct Debits, the amount of which, in order to qualify them as loyal enough to bother calling in the first place, had been increased at least twice recently, likely by the very same people who were calling them now. In those two days we raised around £50,000 that would, as we were told and in turn informed the donors, be 'on the ground' in Syria within twenty-four hours. There was an energy in the offices then, a genuine, unscripted sense of exhilaration, of euphoria, like we had made a difference.

But before I begin to congratulate myself for my role in all this, I should stress that while we were technically helping to accumulate these donations that created this aid, we were still simply the middlemen and women in a far greater and more complex set of social and economic transactions. The way money was referred to, or rather, wasn't, was perhaps the most telling. It was stressed during my time at the call centre that the amounts asked for and received were a gift and always had to be referred to as such, both in call and out. Any mention or even suggestion that it was money, that it was anything other than a pure and untarnished symbol of altruistic benevolence, was swiftly pulled up with increasing frustration and with every semantic slip.

And so the Ask and Negotiation is the most important part of the call structure, occurring immediately after the emotion of the conversation has been ratcheted up by The Rationale, where the callers prove their worth and where for the first time an amount pound sterling is mentioned. This phase is so important that it has its own three-pronged structure-within-a-structure which goes something like this: Ask 1: usually £30 per month, though it was not unusual for the more experienced callers, responding to a particularly notable title (we had quite a few doctors, even a handful of lords and ladies on the books) or postcode, to start the negotiation comfortably within the three figure range. Then handle the almost inevitable objection to that amount, demonstrate active listening, acknowledge and repeat the reason behind their objection, show empathy, but then deflect by segueing seamlessly into The Rebuild where the caller momentarily moves away from The Ask and returns to the good work that the charity is doing. Ask 2: having listened, acknowledged, repeated and rebuilt, the task is to address the objection and ask for a smaller amount, often £10 per month, but this time the emotion of the ask is increased. With each 'no' the subsequent ask becomes more desperate, both for the charity and the caller whose stats and calls are being monitored live, until it descends into a fraught battle of wills e.g. “Many people who can't manage that amount/are giving to other charities/are students/retired are helping with a smaller gift of £10 per month, is that something you can do?” always with a near-subliminal stress on the 'can'. This works maybe one in four times, at best. For the other three, the caller must rebuild again in order to make Ask 3, strictly speaking the final Ask. Here the intensity and pressure of the rhetoric reaches near-Mariana Trench levels, but I'll let this Ask, tailored by an at-wits'-end supervisor after he had read us the riot act halfway through a particularly poor haul, illustrate my point for me: “The reason we're on the phone today is because every child we help has already been let down by the adults they should be able to rely on. What we've found is that almost every child who fails to have their call answered never plucks up the courage to call again. Given what you've told me, what we're asking of people like yourself, is if you can register your support with the minimum gift of £3 per month? It may not sound like a lot, but it means we'll be able to save a child from abuse. Would that be ok?”

The message here was simple: if you say no, you are not only condoning the abuse of children but are in some way indirectly implicated in the abuse of not just one child, but a child every single month of the year for about three years – the average length of what we called a regular gift. What began as a plea for assistance, to join us, to help us stop this, became an accusation of culpability: how can you let this go on? But how could you say no? All it takes is less than the price of a pint a month – alcohol was always our measuring unit of guilt. Money then, as it always has been, was reduced to the object it represents, but instead of a transaction of hours worked for a unit of leisure, or sustenance, or clothing, or an object that somehow addresses the abstract notion of a completed life or a wholeness of being, here the transaction is one of leisure stripped of its relation to work, in exchange for the promise, the reassurance, that someone you don't know, will never know, and will never know for certain actually exists, might have the opportunity to experience all that you take for granted. All that you get up in the morning and go to work for, each and every day, and save so that one day you can escape it. But why would you do that? Perhaps the reason for the obsessive restrictions on what the donations, the currency, could and could not be called – an obsession that caused the supervisors with greater dramatic ambitions to pull Melpomenean faces and gasp in mock horror – was to avoid confronting just that: the uncomfortable questions about why we were doing this and what the donors actually received in return. On top of the religious, philosophical and ethical concepts of altruism – selflessness, personal gratification, redemption, or appeasing some kind of liberal guilt – which are too vast to cover here, was the very real feeling that we had implicated them in some terrible act the second they picked up the phone and challenged them to spend the rest of the call purging themselves of this act, proving to us, through financial and other means, that they really were decent human beings.

But who were we to judge? In most cases we had lied to get this far in the dialogue anyway, or at least come so close that the fact that we hadn't lied offered us no consolation. That first day in the basement we were given the Objection Handling Manual, a stack of A4 carelessly stapled together with instructions cheaply printed informing us how to weasel our way into calls, to deflect and turn a no into a yes. For example The Manual told us that if the caller is met with an early objection, such as, “If you're going to ask for money, don't bother; I'm not going to give anything...” the caller must deflect the objection with the following: “That's ok, first of all I was hoping for an opportunity to tell you a bit about some of the work that we do...would it be possible to do that?” If there follows a second early objection with a direct financial nature, for example, “But you're asking for money aren't you?” the caller should acknowledge the objection in this manner: “We are talking to people about how they might be able to help us in the future, but as I said the first reason for calling is to tell you very briefly about our work, is that ok?” Finally, if the caller has managed to negotiate past some early strong objections, before making Ask 1, the caller should say, “I do appreciate what you said at the top of the call, but this is what we're asking everyone today...” before then making Ask 1 and continuing with the structure of the negotiation. Note the wriggling deception very carefully scripted to be ever-so-slightly this side of an outright lie. Note the frankly embarrassing and slippery use of the first person plural. And also note the shameless emotional manipulation being fed to us to then in turn inflict on others over and over again until the words being said lose all meaning but absolutely nothing of their potency. Believe me when I say that this had a significant psychological effect on those less prepared, less able, to deflect it.

Some callers preferred to perform during calls, shutting themselves off, fictionalising another self for protection and for peace of mind. Some had no choice. A man called Mohammed, who would arrive in the office ten minutes early for every shift so that he could wipe down his handset, mouse and keyboard with the industrial-grade disinfectant provided, removing any trace of the person sat there before him because he couldn't afford any time off sick, and who would every day find a secluded corridor or empty office in which to pray, learned quickly that he had to change his name to Dave. Some of us weren't able to create a fictional self. Emotionally altricial, we felt everything directed onto us. We felt the anger and betrayal when we called a pensioner the day after the government had cut her pension; we felt the dejected hopelessness of having to go through the script with a long-term unemployed man who was just too nice to say no but who promised to hand in his only ten pound note the next time he passed a collection; we felt the tearing open of a half-healed wound every time we spoke to a newly-widowed spouse or a mother who'd lost her child. We felt what we'd inflicted and it took its toll.

On the last day I worked there the words on the page blurred, their meaning truly lost. I left, and, without thinking, I thanked them for their time.