May 13, 2020

Hello, It’s Linda

At least four times a week for the past several months I’ve had phone calls from Robogal.

“Hello, it’s Linda,” she begins, in her unvarying, always perfectly inflected voice. Not tremulous or saccharine; not overbold or tentative; not gruff or timid; not hesitant or strident; not cheerless or giddy; not glum or lighthearted; not solemn or mirthful, but easy, tranquil, matter of fact. Just Linda, calling to help out.

Linda is obviously much too busy to call me personally, so she has thoughtfully recorded her perfectly inflected voice to let me experience the thrill of its perfection every time she calls. The few friends I’ve confided in about Linda have expressed their surprise that I answer the calls at all. Am I not too old and too smart to answer my phone? My friends never do. In fact, they inform me, nobody answers the phone any more. They tell me this confidently, in the same easy Linda way. Life’s too short to make a hobby of entertaining robocalls.

Trouble is, it’s hard to tell it’s Linda when the phone rings because she moves around a lot. Sometimes she calls from Chevy Chase, sometimes from Rockville, or then again, perhaps from Gaithersburg, Baltimore, or sometimes even Annapolis. The display on my phone doesn’t tell me it’s Linda. It says there’s a call from Bethesda, MD (or Mutatis Mutandis, MD, as the lawyers might put it). Now the originating city likely wouldn’t confuse you, but you’ve probably been wherever you are for some time and grown used to your surroundings.

Me, though, I’m an immigrant, relatively recently arrived in Maryland from decades in New York. Up north, the phone would have forthrightly noted the call’s origins as from, say, Plattsburgh, NY, and I’d realize on the spot that the caller was not anyone I’d know. But my calls say Gaithersburg, MD, and in the micro moment I have to assess whether to pick up the phone I leap to the only possible conclusion: It’s one of my doctors calling. And you’d know, if you’re my friend of longstanding, that at our age we have a lot of doctors. I pick up the phone.

“Hello, it’s Linda.”

Just a few days ago I heard from Linda four times within several hours. In the morning she was in Hagerstown, in the afternoon in Mt. Airy and then Glen Burnie, and in the early evening somewhere else like that. It’s hard to keep up with Linda, though Lord knows she keeps up with me. And these days, just a split second after I pick up on the call from Dr. Hagerstown, MD, I realize I’ve been tricked again.

I’m offended—maybe.

Because Linda, you see, is a shill for something called Dealer Services. Several companies popped up when I webbled the name just now. Linda’s not saying. She does suggest she’s calling about my car’s warranty status. She’s tried me several times, and, she recites in the calm, peaceful falsehood she has recorded for all her listeners, this is the very last time she’s going to advise me that I can get a warranty extension if I just hang on a bit longer. I never do. Goodbye, Linda. Until next time.

The question I’m left with, the one I turn over in my mind for thirty seconds or so every time I hang up, rueful for the nth time about failing to distinguish between the Maryland MD and a medical MD, is whether I really am feeling offended. Should I take offense at Linda (the real Linda, the one who has sold her voice), or her corporate masters?

What’s to be offended at? Well, for one thing, I’m on the do-not-call registry. Linda calls anyway. For another, Linda is a liar. She lies every time she calls when she says this is the last time she’ll be calling. She also lies, or whoever places the call is lying, by asserting such a varying geographic provenance of the calls. She asks whether my car is still in warranty. Yes, I say the first time, and after a pause she says “Fantastic. Then you’re qualified for an extension.” No, I say the next time she calls, and after a pause she says: “Fantastic. Then you’re qualified for an extension.” Linda is—did I say this?—deceitful. She’s also intrusive. If you hung up on me four times in a row, I’d stop calling. And to top it off, she’s less than forthright about whom she’s really working for. “Dealer Services” is a perfect information-free name, just the sort that would fit into “Your Name Here,” the Calvin Communications classic 1960 spoof of corporate video promotions. Someone is hiding behind that name.

I have no doubt that many people would exclaim, after they slammed down the receiver on Linda, how offensive these calls are on all these accounts. Still, there’s good reason not to traffic so far in the misuse of words. The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (2012, 3d ed.), p. 615, gives this list of synonyms (among others) for “offended”:

upset, insulted, affronted, aggrieved, displeased, hurt, wounded, disgruntled, put out, annoyed, angry, cross, exasperated, indignant, irritated, piqued, vexed, irked, stung, galled, nettled, resentful, in a huff, huffy, in high dudgeon.

Several of these words might usefully characterize my feelings about Linda. Upset at the phone call or at least displeased, certainly disgruntled, put out, annoyed, irked, exasperated, maybe piqued, even angry (if interrupted in the middle of writing a blog posting). But not, I think, insulted, or stung, galled, nettled, hurt, or wounded. Of course, these words are offered as synonyms: some will fit a particular scenario, some will not. As I’ve thought about my topic over the past many surreal months, and even the past several surreal years, I increasingly think it useful to confine the terms “offensive” and “offended” to a particular kind of feeling and to avoid granting it license to serve as an all embracing term for whatever it is we don’t like or that displeases us. I might reliably report that I was vexed by the result of a certain election in 2016, and I might be open to the argument that it was a dangerous turn, but I don’t think it contributes to understanding to claim that the outcome was offensive. That term, as I will explore in a later post, seems much more sensibly reserved for a particular kind of effect on one’s feelings—in general, as a wound to one’s sense of self, prompted by insult, disparagement, or demeaning statement or action. I may be mightily dismayed, even infuriated, when my favorite quarterback loses a game that was his to win, but unless he threw the game to get at me personally, I can’t say I was offended by his loss, no matter how much it aggrieves me that he failed his team and his fans. Linda’s calls annoy me, but it serves no purpose to excoriate them as offensive.

I am thankful to Linda, though, in one small regard. She’s given me an idea for an offbeat thriller, and I don’t mind sharing the breathless flap copy with you right here, right now:

It’s man against robocaller in this classic of American techno-horror. In his thirty-two years of patrolling the grimy streets of Yourtown, Private Investigator Sampson Holmesboy has never contended with the likes of Linda, an alluring voice that shatters the quiet of his meditative space several times daily by hectoring him in unwanted calls to his land line, a sacred refuge not to be trifled with by the likes of Recorded Voice Attached to Randomized Dialer. When her corporate masters refuse to delete his name from their intrusive sales pitch victims list, Holmesboy takes himself on as a client for the first time ever, determined to track the real flesh-and-blood woman behind the voice and confront her in person. In a fraught cross-country journey, wending his way past squalid scenes of twenty-first-century bankrupt malls, a grim-faced Holmesboy stocks his Tesla-roadster with cases of bottled water and NRA-approved automatic weaponry, fantasizing about the exquisite moment when the Person Behind the Voice opens her door to find him standing firm on the welcome mat. As she stares out through the charged air between them, her face alight with a quizzical but innocent smile, he will utter a prelude to the coup de grâce, in a perfectly rendered rictus of Hannibal Lecter: “Hello, Linda.”