Phone Monkey: Bad Brains

PhoneMonkeyPNGHave you ever been on the phone with customer service and found yourself irritated that after every bit of information you give them, you hear a lengthy clickity-click of typing? The information you’re giving them isn’t that hard to remember for the ten seconds they’re going to need it, right?

Not necessarily. It is entirely possible that the brain of the person on the other end of the phone may be as pockmarked and scarred as the surface of Mars, if not physically, then at least mentally. Neuroscientists like Rick Hanson and Robert Sapolsky claim that constant exposure to complaining and negativity is not just psychologically detrimental, but is actually harmful to the brain on a chemical level. But really, this is just science confirming what everyone already knows.

Hanson notes in the article linked above that we are evolutionarily predisposed toward negativity. It’s what makes fight-or-flight responses work correctly, and is what has allowed us to survive as a species for so long. But, like old washing machines, our brains simply can’t handle large loads of dirty laundry. Constructive criticism is one thing, but long hours of listening to complaints and then voicing them to responsible parties overtaxes our brains. According to these neuroscientists, the damage done doesn’t just make us over jumpy, depressed, and overly negative–it affects our memory and attention span. If you take this kind of thing and crank it up to 11, putting the body in physical danger, you get the kind of damage that results in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a complaint department, not exposed to explosions, war or sexual abuse, we mostly field tiny issues that require minor fixes, but we also deal with shockingly cruel and lewd language and behavior. This is why you will hear us typing, seemingly for ages, as you talk to us. We’re writing everything down, not just so we remember everything, but so we can get it right the first time avoid further negativity.

That leads me toward the fix-it stage. One of the small blessings of customer service is that all of that unpleasantness is channeled into a constructive process. It’s not (always) customers complaining just to complain. But that only helps so much. Self-help writer Trevor Blake’s book Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life not only identifies the damage caused by constant complaining, but proposes ways to mitigate the damage and alleviate the symptoms of it. Obviously, one of the suggestions, asking the complainer to fix the problem, is dicey. The majority of problems we deal with could be resolved between the customer and the offending restaurant without our intervention–and more efficiently,too–but many people choose to take the path of most resistance. Telling them to deal with the problem on their own is generally cause for more and more intense negativity, so we just handle it to make it go away.

One of the other fixes for constant negativity is to raise your shields. As I mentioned in a previous post, most of us already do this. And it works, but not without a cost, because what ends up happening is we look at the customer as a problem to be solved so we can move on to the next one. As full of anger and all-caps as you are, you have ceased to become a person with actual feelings. It also makes us feel a bit numbed and robotic, and our personal and romantic lives can suffer as a result. Many of us (and every phone monkey at my place of work) have other, highly creative interests outside of work, which help combat this. In my group of phone monkeys, there are a few writers, a DIY enthusiast, musicians, festival organizers, and photographers. During the slow periods, we work on our blogs, edit photos, tune mandolins and ukuleles, listen to podcasts and watch movies, among other things, because it engages other parts of our brains and takes energy away from the onslaught of negativity.

But every once in a while, we still might forget your name and call you Mom. Just roll with it.



  1. Not only does received negativity traumatize and damage your brain, but now, apparently, so does porn. So just remember that little coincidence the next you accidentally call a customer “mom.” Puts a whole new twist on your phone-monkey wrench. (

  2. I once seriously confused a person on the complaint line at a large prepackaged food company. I would have called a general line, but the only number they had listed was a complaint line. I asked her if I could leave positive feedback, and she wasn’t sure.

    While enjoying a package of that company’s animal crackers, I noticed that there were some animals facing left and some facing right, and one (the owl) facing forward. I wondered about this, and purchased a few more bags until I believed I had one of each animal they produced. In the final tally, there were six facing left and six facing right and one facing forward; it was delightfully symmetrical. I called the company to ask them to commend the cookie (or cracker) designer for such pleasing work.

    The woman on the other end of the phone said she’d try to find someone to whom she could pass that along. But she seemed ever so slightly amused.

    1. “Watch the gazelle as he graze’s through the open plains, and now look as the cheetah approaches. Watch as he stalks his prey. Now the gazelle has spooked and he could head north, to the mountainous peaks above, or he could go south. The gazelle faces man’s most perilous question: north… or south?”

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