Anger in the Air

Barbara Stanwyck in SORRY, WRONG NUMBERThanks to Caller ID, I don’t answer unidentified or unfamiliar readouts. Yesterday, when I read the name of my bank, I picked up, thinking the call might be important.

It was a survey call. A man informed me that he represented some company that was conducting a survey for my bank and would I participate? As I wasn’t particularly rushed, I said I would.

One of the first questions was this: “Have you visited a branch during the past two weeks?”

I said I had.

His next question was this: “Did you go there in person?”

I laughed. “How else would I have visited the branch,” I asked, “if I hadn’t gone there in person?”

I didn’t really expect him to respond. I know that telemarketers read from a script. To my surprise, he did respond. He said that he didn’t appreciate my remark. He said that I could have made a phone call to the branch.

I don’t think that phoning the bank is the same as visiting the bank, but I decided to keep quiet and answer his questions without further commentary. I could tell that he was annoyed.

With each additional question, his voice became tenser and higher. The words came more and more rapidly until he was speaking so fast the last question was barely comprehensible.

This was, by the way, a native American English speaker.

I could feel the rage from this man whom I didn’t know—who didn’t know me—pouring out of the telephone into my private space.

I said, “I can tell that you are very irritated with me. I am ending this telephone call now.” And I hung up.

I have no idea what kind of day he’d been having before he called me. It could be that I wasn’t the first person to laugh at the silly survey question. I do know that his anger left me shaken.

The experience set me to wondering. How many times a day has this kind of exchange between strangers been taking place lately? One speaker offers a criticism of some neutral subject; the other interprets the criticism as a personal affront and leaps angrily to defend and justify the thing criticized.

I laughed when asked if I “visited the branch in person,” because this is the definition of the verb “to visit” that fits the context:

to visit: to go to see (a person) in a friendly or sociable manner; to call upon as an act of friendliness or politeness, or for some special purpose.

In the context of “visiting a branch bank,” a person goes to the bank to conduct some sort of transaction that requires the person’s physical presence.

How can we hope to communicate rationally if 1. we don’t attach the same meanings to the common words we use, and 2. if we imagine that the slightest show of disagreement or criticism is a personal attack?

The world of social interaction has become a minefield.  I certainly won’t be participating in any more telephone surveys.