Rage, Neoliberalism, and Phone Trees

Rage, Neoliberalism, and Phone Trees 1

Conveniently for those in authority, shifts in public mood don’t have much impact on their power, at least until it becomes so extreme as to threaten revolt. However, it seems necessary to point out a tendency that ought to be obvious, yet is seldom acknowledged: that the neoliberalism, by hollowing out social relations and regularly prioritizing corporate convenience and cost over good service, fair dealings, and honoring contracts, is a significant cause of the much-acknowledged rise in anger in America.

We’ll use phone trees as a source of impotent rage that can’t be directed at the perp, the callous vendor, and thus feeds rising base line of upset.

Be honest: how often have you yelled at the phone when you can’t get past the prompt system quickly to reach a human and/or encounter only choices that don’t fit your situation? Yet because it’s stoopid to yell at a recording (as in to add insult to injury, the customer has succumbed to reacting to automation as if it were human) and it’s so inescapable, I suspect most underrate how significant an irritant it is.

Before we turn to phone trees as a symptom of neoliberal crapification, we’ll look briefly at rising choler in the US. A few minutes on a search engine will turn up many surveys where Americans answer polls saying they are angrier now than in the past. Note this was an established trend before Trump-despising became a national pastime. From the BBC in early 2016:

A CNN/ORC poll carried out in December 2015 suggests 69% of Americans are either “very angry” or “somewhat angry” about “the way things are going” in the US.

And the same proportion – 69% – are angry because the political system “seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington,” according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from November.

Many people are not only angry, they are angrier than they were a year ago, according to an NBC/Esquire survey last month – particularly Republicans (61%) and white people (54%) but also 42% of Democrats, 43% of Latinos and 33% of African Americans.

Candidates have sensed the mood and are adopting the rhetoric.

As much as this and other surveys confirm that Americans are in an ever-more-foul frame of mind (for instance Poll: Americans Say We’re Angrier Than A Generation Ago and We’re all just so damn angry), they aren’t useful beyond confirming priors. At least the polls cited in 2016 got at broader, if more inchoate triggers for anger, like a sense of diminished power and prospects. As we’ve pointed out since the inception of this website, unequal societies are unhappy societies, even at the top, and inequality has only been rising since the 1980s.

But these polls are done by pollsters, whose bread and butter business is measuring the popularity of candidates, parties, and political initiatives. So it’s no surprise that they’ve engaged in drunk under the streetlight behavior by run surveys that focus on phenomena in their back yard. So they have found that respondents are irate about politics and more social media engagement is correlated with more upset.

But even if Americans will report to a pollster that they are mad about these matters, is this what they are really, fundamentally upset about? Is anger about politics a proxy for more fundamental causes? hat if it’s along the lines of everything seems unduly difficult and stressful, and they lack the means and the power to make their situation any better? Or more starkly, many are struggling even harder yet barely getting by? And who would sponsor a survey that tried to probe issues like that? There are ones that track indicators of desperation, like how many have less that $400 in the bank, but there seems to be a paucity of broader work on economic and social pressures and how they affect mood and behavior.

A reason to be skeptical of polls is that these surveys beyond simple ones such as on voting intent is they virtually never do the required foundational work, which is a multi-phased, costly process: first, extensive, open-ended interviews to find out what the possible issues might be, then testing of survey instruments to verify their validity (as in among other things try to weed out bias created by the phrasing and ordering of questions) before finally administering the survey instrument.

Note we are skipping over the idea that some of the increase in anger may be a direct effect of Covid. A large-scale study in The Lancet found that 34% exhibited psychiatric or neurological symptoms 6 months after a Covid case. One could hazard that sub-clinical abnormalities would be even greater. Readers on a widespread basis have claimed to see a marked increase in reckless driving in the Covid era, and wonder if this is due to Covid producing some emotional dis-inhibiting.

Nevertheless, despite the generally conventional, as in not-terribly-informative, take on choler in America, a 2019 article in the Atlantic described some foundational work. It was based on precisely the sort of large-scale, in-depth qualitative interviews that are the hallmark of good social sciences research. But also note it took place in a pre-neoliberal society: 1977, in Greenfield, Mass, a town of 18,000 with a tool and die maker as its main employer. It sounds similar to the paper mill towns I grew up in, which also showed very little class stratification. The factory workers made enough to afford a house with a stay at home wife (or at worse she started working part time after they were all in school) and some luxuries, like a boat or a rural cottage. From the Atlantic:

Soon after the snows of 1977 began to thaw, the residents of Greenfield, Massachusetts, received a strange questionnaire in the mail. “Try to recall the number of times you became annoyed and/or angry during the past week,” the survey instructed….

The survey was interested in the particulars of respondents’ anger. In its 14 pages, it sought an almost voyeuristic level of detail…

Greenfield, population 18,000, was an unusual place to plumb these depths. It was a middle-class town with a prosperous tool-and-die factory, where churches outnumbered bars two to one. Citizens were private and humble, and—except for a few recent letters to the editor lamenting that the high-school hockey team had been robbed in the playoffs—the town showed little evidence of widespread resentment. In fact, this very placidity was why Greenfield had been chosen for the study.

The author of the questionnaire was James Averill, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Averill was a gentle soul, the kind of man who had once returned to a grocery store to apologize to a cashier after becoming annoyed over miscounted change. But he was convinced that his academic colleagues misunderstood anger. He had attended many conferences where researchers had described it as a base instinct, a vestige from our savage past that served no useful purpose in contemporary life. “Everyone basically thought anger was something that mature people and societies ought to suppress,” Averill told me. “There was this attitude that if you were an angry person, you ought to be a bit embarrassed.” In journal articles and at symposia, academics described anger as a problem to be solved, an instinct with little social benefit. “But that didn’t really make any sense to me,” he said….

Averill’s expectations were modest. He assumed that most Greenfield residents would say they only infrequently lost their temper. He expected respondents to confess that they were embarrassed afterward, and that, in retrospect, their paroxysms had only made things worse. In fact, he figured most people would toss the questionnaire in the trash.

Then the survey from the aggrieved wife arrived. Other replies soon began flooding his mailbox, so many that Averill had trouble reading them all. “It was the best-performing survey I’ve ever conducted,” he told me….

Most surprising of all, these angry episodes typically took the form of short and restrained conversations. They rarely became blowout fights. And contrary to Averill’s hypothesis, they didn’t make bad situations worse. Instead, they tended to make bad situations much, much better. They resolved, rather than exacerbated, tensions. When an angry teenager shouted about his curfew, his parents agreed to modifications—as long as the teen promised to improve his grades. Even the enraged wife’s confrontation with her unfaithful husband led to a productive conversation: He could keep the mistress, as long as she was out of sight and as long as the wife always took priority.

In the vast majority of cases, expressing anger resulted in all parties becoming more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, more accommodating of each other’s complaints. People reported that they tended to be much happier after yelling at an offending party. They felt relieved, more optimistic about the future, more energized. “The ratio of beneficial to harmful consequences was about 3 to 1 for angry persons,” Averill wrote. Even the targets of those outbursts agreed that the shouting and recriminations had helped. They served as signals for the wrongdoers to listen more carefully and change their ways. More than two-thirds of the recipients of anger “said they came to realize their own faults,” Averill wrote.

Now one could argue Averill managed to find a context that would confirm his priors. In a community of generally tight social bonds, the trigger for anger was typically perceived misconduct by someone in a close relationship. The anger was salutary because it led to clarification, often admission of bad behavior, and a renegotiation of boundaries.

How often these days is your anger the result of a violation by a partner, family member, or close friend, as opposed to say wrestling with misbehaving technology or an uncaring bureaucracy?

The New York Times recently had an article about post-Covid rage against service professionals such as airline employees, restaurant staff, and hospital workers: Why Is Everyone So Angry? We Investigated. This to me comes off as pent up rage looking for a target, and aiming it at an institutional front person, regardless of whether they were actually responsible for the problem. In other words, given an inability to find someone in an organization who can be made to feel consequences for whatever perceived or actual wrong, consumers are now lashing out at someone they think they can abuse emotionally.

And now let’s turn to the lowly phone tree as a neoliberal tool. It’s hard to find any data, but once you get beyond small businesses like dentist’s practices, they seem to be pervasive. And it’s not as if well designed ones in the right setting are bad. If you call the grocery store and can select the meat department versus the bakery, and still get an operator, you as customer have not faced a big time cost beyond what you’d experience if you had a human directing the call.

However, for many big organizations, the phone tree has become an elaborate exercise in shifting costs onto the consumer, particularly now that many contain long preambles that include selling (say a loyalty rewards program) and designed-to-increase-frustration lectures that going online or using chat would be faster.1 For instance, disputing how a health insurance claim was processed inevitably entails speaking to a representative. Yet my insurer, with all of its introductory nattering, makes sure it takes minutes to get to one, even before queuing. And don’t get me started about how most systems force the consumer to qualify themselves twice, first with the automated system, then with a live person. What is the point of this duplication save harassment, or at best, to make clear the customer is actually a supplicant?

If you have been phone-tree-tortured by a big bank, you can easily encounter 3 or 4 layers of 9 options each with narrow issues. And they are often good at making it hard to circumvent the automation to get to a live person, even when you know your issue is so-non standard as to not be in the hierarchy (for instance, when I needed to get a few duplicate credit card statements from my deceased mother’s account. Not only was it virtually impossible to reach anyone nominally responsible, they then simply arranged, even after a lawyer nastygram, only to keep sending letters saying the balances were paid in full. It was only after several attempts, by dint of luck of finally getting a more seasoned phone rep who did get the statements sent out. But why should customer service be a random event?)

Perhaps I am an outlier, but the flip side is I have not had the misfortune of late to get into any high-stakes fights, like over a surprise medical bill. But when I was in Thailand for two weeks in February, and still doing some work and encountering hassles like a misbehaving ride-summoning app, I realized I had not been angry for two weeks. And while the Thais are exceptionally considerate, I realized not dealing with phone trees were a big factor.

1 There is a school of thought in Silicon Valley, exemplified by Google, that customers are not entitled to human interaction, so their executives would see phone tree whinging as spoiled.

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