(Kayana Szymczak/The New York Times)

July 13, 2021

The Telephone Tyrant

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I’m not stupid, but that didn’t stop the woman on the other end of the phone from calling me that. English is my first language, but that didn’t stop the woman on the other end of the phone from questioning my command of it. My name is Sarah, but that didn’t stop the woman on the other end of the phone from never using it. 

After spending months sending cold-emails and having “informational interviews”, I was so excited to find a job as a reservationist for a restaurant group. I had this romanticized view in my head of being a working girl in New York City, and everyone around me was too nice to pop my bubble constructed of naivety and ignorance. 

I spend eight hours a day answering phones. Some days, I book reservations for CEOs and influencers. Other days, time seems to move in reverse — it feels like eight days pass before I walk into the dark night and begin my fear-filled walk to the train station, gripping my phone in my hand, ready to make a call if I feel unsafe. After a week, I realized that this job wasn’t what I thought nor what I wanted, but I placated myself with cliches like “it’s a stepping stone” and “I’m learning great customer service skills”. I learned, above all, that a phone is equally the single most protective and destructive object that we, as a society, have unencumbered access to. 

Technology is a miracle. It’s made our lives easier, more efficient, and has given us the gift of connection. However, this gift of connection is a double-edged sword. A phone provides all of us with the blessing of safety and the curse of anonymity. Walking through the dark night, a phone provides me with a sense of security. On the other hand, at work, the phone shields the customer on the other end from the reality that they’re speaking to a living, breathing human  — with feelings of frustration and exhaustion just as legitimate as their own. 

The act of having a conversation without the ability to look into one another’s eyes is dehumanizing. How often have any one of us been on the phone with a customer service representative, only to lose our tempers after being left on hold? Even the nicest person falls prey to this trap — and in the world of restaurants, you’re often on the receiving end.

The restaurant industry has come under fire lately for its treatment of employees. The industry has always struggled with retention and has one of the highest turnover rates. The pandemic and subsequent governmental financial support have further deterred many employees from returning to a life of unfair wages and unjust treatment – the irony that the majority of employees at fine dining restaurants cannot afford a meal at their own workplace should not be lost on us. However, above all, no one should have to be subjected to being another person’s verbal punching bag just to put food on the table. The industry as a whole needs to do better. 

As a reservationist, you are the customer’s first impression of the restaurant. You hold the power to make or break both the customer’s experience and the restaurant’s bottom line. While I afford a lot of power to the reservationist, I want to make it very clear that we do not have the ability to conjure up a table from thin air, increase your party size on the 4th of July weekend, or correct your UberEats order. And when I politely tell you that something is outside of my ability, please don’t call me names or threaten to report me to management — I’m just doing my job. I certainly can’t reserve a table for you if you’re rude, but there’s a special place in hell reserved for people like you. 

When I answer the phone at work, it’s impossible to mistake me for anything but a kid. I don’t have any of the weariness or maturity in my voice that unavoidably comes with age and hardship, yet somehow this fact is not enough to stop a disgruntled guest from using the same language one would expect from a sailor — or in a kitchen. In no other field, would this type of language or behavior be deemed acceptable. 

I do not know if this treatment is a reflection of bad manners, a feeling of entitlement, or simply because of the telephone. However, I do know this: in two months’ time, I will return to the bubble of my college campus and its holistic approach to education; but how holistic can my education truly be if it doesn’t teach me how to be a good person?

Sarah Austin is a rising junior in the School of Hotel Administration. She can be reached at [email protected].