Discussion → The Contenders - Neil Fraser Addison

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    Neil Fraser Addison
    Apr 08, 10:12pm

    Tony Matthis was sat inside an otherwise empty conference room at his place of employment; a warm and eerie venue from which to launch this first time call. Outside the window the weather was raging, with severe winds coming in off the Irish Sea to pound this large office space (as heard through the double glazing above Tony's head, they amounted to a low persistent thrum).
    Although Tony lived and worked in the coastal town of Southport, once he'd taken this step and reached the company helpline – offering emotional support to all Herald Services employees – it turned out to be The Guangzhou Wellness Centre on the other end of the phone. There was no effort to conceal this geographical divide and the English-speaking operative was perfectly upfront about it. Briefly, the fact that his personal issues were being forwarded to the other side of the world gave Tony a small lift, as if the distance bestowed some kind of honour upon them; but then he used his head – and his own intimate knowledge of outsourcing – and this sense of pleasure fell away. He had to accept that the decision was based simply on cost.
    The first phone operative he spoke to, a woman, put Tony straight through to another of her colleagues. There was no musak to contend with, no musical holding pen, none of that dead air filled with infuriating melodies. The hand-off was, instead, pleasingly prompt.
    "Hello Tony, this is Karl you're speaking to. How are you today?"
    "Not bad, Karl, thanks. How about yourself?"
    "Excellent, Tony, thank you for asking."
    "Your English is very good," Tony commented.
    "That's because I'm an American," Karl answered.
    "Oh. Right."
    "From West River, South Dakota."
    "Never been there."
    "It's definitely worth a visit."
    "And now you're living in China?"
    "In Guangzhou, yes. It'll be three years next Tuesday. What a city this is! You ever made it out this way, Tony?"
    "No, I haven't been there either."
    "Listen, just returning to what you said earlier, I can understand why you may have thought I was a Chinese national trying to pass myself off as a native English speaker, but I want to assure you that this is not the case. I can only speak for my own company, UIH, but certainly we're looking to move away from any bogus Anglicisation issues. That was an unfortunate chapter in the history of phone commerce, and with hindsight anyone can see that it was guaranteed to spread enormous ill-will. Here at Upticks In Health, it's exactly the opposite. Every employee is encouraged to share his authentic biographical details and ethnic heritage. I think this degree of honesty always makes good commercial sense, but especially in a line of work such as this, when trust is at a premium. Basically what you get with us is candour all the way."
    "That's good to know."
    "You can rely upon it, Tony. This really is a great company to work for and I'm really pleased with the way things are going for me here. The prospects are first rate. I've already been promoted twice."
    There was a short silence as Tony got the impression that Karl – having credited himself with breaking the ice – was now waiting for his caller to initiate the session in earnest. It was therefore up to Tony to conclude this cordial preamble. "So, should we start then?" He said.
    "If you're happy to do that, Tony. As long as you feel comfortable. You've signed out from your workstation already?"
    "I have."
    "Good. Let me just get the disclaimer out the way and then I'll take a few preliminary details."
    "Firstly Tony, please be advised that Upticks In Health is no substitute for accredited medical care. It is therefore important that you continue to heed the advice of your local GP and view this service of ours as complementary. Also, be aware that clinical depression, no matter how mild, is a serious issue requiring all necessary professional attention. As a consequence, any proscribed course of medication should be continued with as before."
    "And you do accept that any information disclosed during the course of our talks may, in certain cases, be shared with your doctor, solely in the interests of your personal well-being?"
    "Yes. Fair enough."
    "Would you like me to read any of that out again?"
    "No. That’s fine. I understand."
    "Good. So how about you begin by telling me when you first started feeling low in spirits?"
    "Take your time, Tony. Cast your mind back."
    "Well the last year as a whole hasn't been much fun."
    "So we could say twelve months?"
    "That sounds about right."
    "Good. And in what ways has it manifested itself, this depression of yours? If you can rank it using numerical indicators, with zero for negligible, and five for critically severe. Let's start with loss of energy?"
    "Probably a three."
    "Loss of appetite?"
    "Loss of libido?"
    "Maybe a two."
    "Any drug abuse?"
    Tony hesitated. "That's a zero as well."
    "Alcohol abuse?"
    "I wouldn't say abuse, but I've probably drunk a few more units than usual, so I'd put that down as a one."
    "And what about suicidal impulses?"
    "Zero. None at all."
    "And are you currently taking any kind of medication?"
    "No I'm not."
    "I know these may seem like crude indicators, Tony, and please understand that this is only a preliminary reading..."
    They did seem like crude indicators, Tony thought. In fact it seemed that Karl was adhering to a flow-chart, and with every yes or no, zero or five, the tele-therapist was simply being led down a path which he was obliged to follow with little presence of mind. Karl sounded perfectly natural on the phone, but Tony had plenty of experience of sounding natural as well. It's not so different from what I do for a living, he thought, and for this reason Tony felt sorry for Karl and decided not to give him any grief for what was basically an insulting encounter. Instead he decided to go through the motions, as much for Karl's sake as his own.
    Tony could hear the patter of Karl's keyboard, in concert with his voice, and it sounded like the tele-therapist was hitting truly impressive speeds, somewhere around the ninety words per minute mark. This great proficiency proved so distracting that Tony almost lost his train of thought as a result, and only avoided this fate because Karl stopped with the typing abruptly after gathering all of the necessary answers. The American then took a moment to reflect upon these answers, or at least that was what the silence suggested. Presumably Tony's data was being graded in some mysterious way.
    "OK," Karl spoke finally, "based on what you've said, I strongly suggest we make an appointment to talk again at the earliest opportunity."
    "How about we set aside half an hour, commencing 14.30 GMT next Wednesday afternoon for a more involved discussion?"
    "That's fine."
    "This may take some time, Tony, and I'm offering you no guarantees, but I'd like to think we can get to the heart of this depression of yours and take the proper steps to uproot it. In time I will be going a little deeper into your personal history and broadening the scope of our conversations. Today was really just a chance for me to introduce myself and for the two of us to get acquainted."
    "Thanks. I appreciate that. As a matter of interest, what's the time in Guangzhou right now?"
    "It's five past ten in the evening. But that's no problem for me – I've always been a night person."
    "OK, well, guess I'll talk to you Wednesday then, Karl."
    "14.30 GMT. I look forward to it."

    Although it was true that Tony was genuinely sick of his life, there was also the issue of promotion to consider. The last five colleagues of his to secure permanent jobs at Herald Services had all made extensive use of this helpline – subscribing to the same tele-therapy – and it seemed like no coincidence that they'd been offered full-time contracts shortly after concluding their treatment over the phone. Rather than being considered a mark against your name, it appeared to operate as a seal of approval, as if acknowledging your frailties in-house offered a sure-fire way to get ahead. Therefore it was not only the attentions of a sympathetic listener Tony had desired in ringing this number, but also a helping hand up the corporate ladder in order to escape its lowliest rung. That was a big part of his thinking. Not that he saw any long-term future in working for this company, but an immediate hike in his wretched pay packet – as guaranteed by a full-time contract – would have made a real difference to Tony's life as things stood. This ulterior motive also served to protect his self-esteem. On the one hand, yes, he was confessing to his misery, but at least he had sufficient alertness to try and exploit the situation, which, Tony supposed, meant that things were not all that bad.

  • Vila_brandao.thumb
    Neil Fraser Addison
    Apr 08, 10:19pm

    Posted in the wrong place with all the alacrity of a dolt. Apologies in advance.

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