June 18th, 2006

Caught mid-teleport

Multiple personalities

I help out in the Oxfam Bookshop on Saturday afternoon. I have been for about a year now, and I really enjoy it (enormous thanks to cleanskies for getting me into it). I revealed this fact to an ex-girlfriend that I'd not seen since college, and her response was "You've changed!" I'm still not really quite sure how to take that. It's true that I've never been someone particularly encumbered/redeemed by morals or beliefs, and those are the sorts of thing that one might expect to be motivating a charity volunteer. On the other hand, since the age of about 4 I'd have leapt at the opportunity to spend time in a basement full of books with my friends; and from the age of about 14, being told what to do by attractive women has also been appealing. Looked at from that perspective, it suits me perfectly.

Anyway, last week in the shop our till-veteran Betty was away, so I found myself serving customers for the first time in years. The last time I'd found myself behind a till was when I worked in Waterstones bookshop, just after leaving college. I was only there for four months before they decided not to take me on as a full-time employee because I 'lacked motivation and commitment'. This surprised me, somewhat. Sure, I gave discounts to customers who were nice and/or attractive, and demagnetised the credit cards of those who made my life a misery. And yes, one particularly foul gentleman ended up with a monthly subscription to a nun-porn site after crossing me. Nevertheless, I was fairly sure they didn't know about any of that, and I felt that almost always turning up to work on time was about as much 'motivation and commitment' as their pitiful salary deserved. Which, in retrospect, probably proved their point.

So, I'm behind the till, serving customers, and an eerie feeling slips over me. A spherical gentleman offers a weak and slightly creepy witticism of some kind, and I'm laughing politely before my brain has even had time to process his words and return an analysis of 'patronising, sleazy old fuck'. I politely explain the credit card machine to someone, twice, with barely a ripple of impatience disturbing my implacably cordial demeanor. In short, without thinking of it, I have drifted into customer service mode. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about grudging wage-slave customer service of the sort that the more trying of my Waterstones customers used to receive. There were no 'accidentally' dropped coins, demands for second attempts at credit-card signatures, or deadpan simulation of incomprehension in the face of stupid questions. No, this was the real deal.

My current paid job (in common with every other job that I've had that didn't end in something only technically distinct from being fired) involves being paid a reasonable wage to help people. 'Technical support and training' is what it says on my CV, but that's what it boils down to. Protective cognitive dissonance has ensured that I have developed an alternate persona to deal with such situations: an even-voiced, polite, understanding and infinitely patient chap who does the jobs I can't bear to. People have mentioned, for example, that my phone voice is completely different when I think it's going to be a customer on the other end of the line.

Normally this disparity between me and the person that does my job doesn't trouble me; if anything, it's comforting. Oxfam, however, doesn't count as work. In fact, as something voluntary, enjoyable, satisfying and worthwhile, it's the polar opposite of work. That's why I found it disturbing to catch myself slipping into my 'customer service' persona. It raised the eerie possibility that this open, helpful, charming person was not simply a useful construct, but could in fact be the real me. If Betty hadn't been back this Saturday, it could have all gone a bit Fight Club...
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