Working, Pt. 1: Sharon Atkins, Receptionist
For the next several posts, I’m going to highlight individual stories of people talking about their work. The interviews are from Studs Terkel’s masterful book Working, a compendium of first-hand accounts of people at work: steel workers, cab drivers, farmers, policemen. As I’ve read their stories, I’ve been moved to hushed silence. The cry for dignity, the frustration, the crafting of meaning through work – this is one of the most human books I’ve ever read.
What I will do in each post is introduce the individual and his/her work, and then share a lengthy direct quotation from the interviewee. From there, I will offer some brief theological reflections on their experience.
Sharon Atkins, 24, works as a receptionist for a large company in the Midwest. As an English major, she originally looked for copy writing jobs, but employers wanted a journalism major instead. So she took a job answering phones.
“I changed my opinion of receptionists because now I’m one. It wasn’t the dumb broad at the front desk who took telephone messages. She had to be something else because I thought I was something else. I was fine until there was a press party. We were having a fairly intelligent conversation. Then they asked what I did. When I told them they turned around to find other people with name tags. I wasn’t worth bothering with. I wasn’t being rejected because of what I said or the way I talked, but simply because of my function…
“I don’t think they’d ever hire a male receptionist. They’d have to pay him more, for one thing. You can’t pay someone who does what I do very much. It isn’t economically feasible. (Laughs.) You’re there just to filter people and filter telephone calls. You’re there just to handle the equipment. You’re treated like a piece of equipment, like the telephone.
“You come in at nine, you open the door, you look at the piece of machinery, you plug in the headpiece. That’s how my day begins. You tremble when you hear the first ring. After that, it’s sort of downhill – unless there’s somebody on the phone who is either kind or nasty. The rest of the people are just non, they don’t exist. They’re just voices. You answer calls, you connect them to others, and that’s it…
“I don’t have much contact with people…You don’t know if they’re laughing, if they’re being satirical or being kind. So your conversations become very abrupt. I notice that in talking to people. My conversations would be very short and clipped, in short sentences, the way I talk to people all day on the telephone…When I talk to someone at work, the telephone rings, and the conversation is interrupted. So I never bother finishing sentences or thoughts. I always have this feeling of interruption…
“You try to fill up your time with trying to think about other things: what you’re going to do on the weekend or about your family. You have to use your imagination. If you don’t have a very good one and you bore easily, you’re in trouble. Just to fill in time, I write real bad poetry or letters to myself and to other people and never mail them. The letters are fantasies, sort of rambling, how I fell, how depressed I am…I always dream I’m alone and things are quiet. I call it the land of no-phone, where there isn’t any machine telling me where I have to be every minute…
“Until recently I’d cry in the morning. I didn’t want to get up. I’d dread Fridays because Monday was always looming over me. Another five days ahead of me. There never seemed to be any end to it. Why am I doing this? Yet I dread looking for other jobs…I don’t know what I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit the job. I really don’t know what talents I may have. And I don’t know where to go to find out…
“My father’s in watch repair. That’s always interested me, working with my hands, and independent. I don’t think I’d mind going back and learning something, taking a piece of furniture and refinishing it. The type of thing where you know what you’re doing and you can create and you can fix something to make it function. At the switchboard, you don’t do much of anything.”
On being “networked”: Sharon had the experience of being “networked” as a press party; as soon as somebody found out her job, they deemed her unimportant. The Christians teach that all people have value not because of their work or social status, but simply because they’re made in the image of God. How often do we “network” people to advance ourselves, or simply treat people as tools to be used? Do we really talk “to” the clerk at the grocery store or the insurance representative on the phone, or do we talk “through” them, to simply get what we need and then be on our way?
On interruptions: Sharon observed that her job was affecting her ability to think. Her thoughts and her sentences became truncated because her work forced her to say something quickly and then move on to the next caller. A recent book has noted that the internet is also affecting our brains. How do the rhythms of your job – whether serving customers or replying to mountains of email – affect you ability to have a full thought? Sharon’s mind was altered by her work, and she experienced a deep boredom through automated repetition.
On fear: Sharon was afraid to leave her job because she wasn’t even sure of what she was good at anymore. She dreaded Monday (even Fridays too), and her dreams were melting away. It’s clear that her work was the locus of a deep sadness, and she yearned for an even deeper hope.
On satisfying work: Sharon longed for another kind of work, one “type of thing where you know what you’re doing and you can create and you can fix something to make it function.” I’ll have more to say about this in future posts, but Sharon is expressing a deeply embedded desire to reflect the image of the Creator. She was born to create, to leave a physical imprint on the world as one who is herself the physical imprint of Another.
Discussion question: If you were to meet Sharon tomorrow, what hope would you offer her? What advice would you give?
(Photo: Telephone Switchboard, Robert Niles)