Thursday, February 14, 2008

Average Kentuckian Values Fairness

By: James-Clifton Spires

My work, which is with a private contractor that answers telephone calls for various U.S. government agencies, has allowed me to conduct initial telephone background checks on firearms purchases, assist people looking and applying for government grants, and help federal employees with their travel arrangements.

My co-workers and I have spoken with a wide range of people on these various issues, from country music stars and U.S. senators to pawnbrokers and people on the verge of homelessness.

The type of work we do requires an acceptance of the fact that the job requires us to be anonymous voices answering a telephone, subject to each caller's mood and interpretation of how we sound.

It's somewhat akin to being a voice actor --- you can adapt to a wide range of situations without having to change your appearance or shift your position in your chair. You just have to listen and respond accordingly.

I'm the oldest person, by a few months, in the office bay where I work. I've become aware of the fact that my voice occasionally makes me sound much younger than I am --- some people who call who are close to my own age will refer to me as "young man" --- sometimes in an affectionate manner or sometimes condescendingly, depending upon the nature of the call.

I've had enough speech training over the years to cover the Southeast Ohio Appalachian drawl (filtered through North Carolina and Kentucky) that I've grown up with and affect a neutral-sounding Midwestern accent similar to that used by network news anchors. I've also learned something about letting bits and pieces of regional accent creep in, depending upon the caller and the situation. For the most part, Ah do --- uh, I do --- just fine. I reckon.

As I said, the people who call me, or any other person who answers telephones for a living, only knows what little we give them of ourselves --- the rest is up to their imaginations and their mood when they call. I've had people cry because I sounded sympathetic, scream because they were in a mood to scream, flirt with me, mother me, threaten me and offer to hire me away just because of the way my voice sounded to them.

None of them know that I'm 57 years old, the father of adult children, shave my head, use Just for Men on my beard, am built like a long-past-his-prime heavyweight contender, or live with a male partner whom I call my husband. They do not know my politics, my religion, whether I can sing like Andrea Bocelli or Roseanne Barr, whether my eyes are blue or my skin is brown or anything else --- unless I tell them.

As a result, our over-the-phone-wires relationships are based on business and mostly first impressions. If I come off as competent, friendly, and helpful, I can usually soothe an angry or distressed or frustrated caller and leave them in a better frame of mind at the end of the call. Not all the time, but most of the time, if I'm doing my job properly.

I've had dissatisfied people ask to speak to my supervisor. I've also had callers ask if they can talk to me specifically if they need to call back again. The good and the bad. It's all based on what our experience was with each other.

Obviously, the good calls are the best ones --- you get a sense that it's going well when the caller starts to joke, tell stories about himself or herself, or gets interested enough into you to ask personal questions. We're trained to keep it light and neutral --- and not reveal too much about one's self or the inner workings of our company.

I've had callers, feeling comfortable with me, assume that I might be "their" kind of people. These folks will volunteer their political affiliations ("I voted for the woman," a brusque Boston accent told me in a call just after the Massachusetts presidential primary) and sometimes their prejudices ("Grants for minorities. Yeah, you can't be white these days if you want government money!").

Occasionally you get clues about someone who is, shall we say, a fellow traveler. "My SPOUSE and I went kayaking and camping in Alaska last year," a business-like female caller told me in a purposeful non sequitor from our discussion of her grant application. (Yeah, I thought. My SPOUSE and I went to Miami last year and ogled some cute gay boys. My gaydar's working on you, too, sister.)

Because our office is located in southeastern Kentucky, a lot of my co-workers are locals whose values (and accents, more often than not) reflect the culture in which they were raised. On the first day of our training class, we were asked to introduce and tell a bit about ourselves. I was one of the first selected to speak and, sticking to a vow I made a few years ago to never again be closeted in the workplace, came out and said that I was the father of adult children and I was on my third marriage to my first husband.

The training class instructor, obviously in new territory with this revelation, took on a tone of false heartiness and said, "Well, we don't have to get TOO personal, here," although I didn't see that what I said was too much different from my co-workers who got up and told about their families, some of which included babies with different daddies.

I figured if there was going to be any backlash from anyone in the class, I'd set up the situation so I could get it out of the way at the beginning. Instead, on our breaks in training, I found different class members coming up to me and whispering, "My brother's gay." "I have a best friend whose family kicked him out." "My husband doesn't know it, but I have a girlfriend." "Do you need a hug, James?" In other words, apparently these southeast Kentuckians' culture included something I, as a relative newcomer to their community, didn't expect: A respect for people's individuality and a willingness to accept and maybe try to identify with someone who different from themselves.

Our class bonded very closely, much like a unit of military recruits who went through the rigors of boot camp together. We struggle with the same work-related issues and know bits and pieces of each others' stories and living situations. People ask me about my husband much in the same way they'll ask someone else about a heterosexual spouse. I'm just James. They're just them. We do our jobs, get along with each other, do our work at the workplace and the rest of our lives in our appropriate elsewheres.

I've found that my co-workers are very much like most of the people who call us for anonymous assistance. What I do with my life before and after work isn't really their concern. It's how we interact together in a professional situation that is important.

My co-workers are typical of the people I've met in Kentucky, for the most part. They may have not traveled widely or been exposed to a lot of different cultural experiences, but they were raised with the basic principle, "Live and let live." They tend not to be involved with politics --- most of them ignore the frothing Fox News coverage, in the company breakroom, of the minutiae of the presidential race. They are religious, but leery of people who are "too religious."

And for the most part, they could care less, unlike certain politicians who cater to the extremist elements of the religious right, about "protecting" the institutions of marriage and the family from homosexual influences. Most people use their energies to focus on their own marriages and would resent anyone else trying to butt in and "help" them, unless they asked for the assistance first.

In other words, the average Kentuckian values fairness. He or she just wants to get along with everyone else and is willing, as most of us have been taught from childhood, to live and let live. Don't interfere with their lives and they won't interfere with yours. Any politician or religious leader who suggests otherwise is either listening to a limited constituency or has never worked in an environment where diversity is respected and valued.

There are all kinds of people in the world, with all kinds of interests and needs. None of us can tell anyone else what's right for him or her --- but what we can do is treat each other with the same courtesy, respect and equality that we want for ourselves.


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