• Customer service staff are human too, writes Helen Razer. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
When unleashing her day’s problems on a voice at the other end of the line, Helen Razer stops and realises that she has more in common with this person than first thought.
Helen Razer

20 Apr 2017 - 1:12 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2017 - 1:16 PM

Perhaps you’ve read the phrase “First World Problems”. It’s a pretty good one, when judiciously applied. You might find that it comes in handy, for example, when a well-to-do friend on social media publicly complains that he just can’t find a drycleaner who presses his pants precisely. Or, when, say, a lady, ahem, of a certain age whines that the online supermarket truck came to her door without an order of fair trade chocolate eggs.

Okay. That was me, and you’re entirely welcome, nay encouraged, to despise me. While I was not unwise enough to complain in public that my eco-friendly sweets had been omitted from delivery, I certainly growled at a woman on the customer service help-desk. “My Easter is ruined!” I may have said, as though I were the sort of faithful person to whom this Christian holiday meant anything more than a few days off and a few thousand extra calories. “I expect to be reimbursed for my troubles!” I may have said, as though I couldn’t have corrected this lack of chocolate with a five-minute walk to the shops.

Comment: Political correctness hasn’t gone mad, the world has
It’s a phrase that's thrown around by politicians and activists, but Helen Razer believes that political correctness is more an amplifier than a red tape.

As soon as I may have said this, though, I remembered to whom I was saying it. I was not speaking directly with the supermarket conglomerate, which had made the minor error of forgetting my chocs. I was speaking with a human lady through those layers of digital hiss than generally mean that someone is working on the other side of the world.

Look. I’m not going to fib and tell you that I do not remain very perturbed by my temporary lack of chocolate. If one orders and pays for chocolate, it is not unreasonable to expect that chocolate will arrive. It is not even unreasonable to ask, “Where is my chocolate?”, perhaps even immediately followed by a request such as, “Please, bring me my chocolate.” Surely, the least a major company can do is fill us all with pacifying sugar when we pay for it.

But, the least I must do is remember, even when I am half-mad from chocolate deprivation, that I am not talking to an organ of a corporation, but a human in a headset. Perhaps, one in an over-heated room.

It is far better, I think, to always remember that the person at the end of the digital hiss is connected to me not just by VOIP, but by the universal experience of human labour.

This is not, for me, a lesson only about being nice to other individuals; although, that’s always a good one to learn. It’s not even a lesson about “First World Problems”; although, that’s a good one, too. Actually, it’s a lesson about One World Problems. It is far better, I think, to always remember that the person at the end of the digital hiss is connected to me not just by VOIP, but by the universal experience of human labour.

This is what linked the two of us, although she was holding on to her end of this thread with much greater honour than me. I was cranky from a week of work and wanted chocolate. She, in all likelihood, was very cranky from many long days of calming the nerves of Australian sugar addicts, but all she sought to do was help.

I did not get my chocolate—my hypocritical chocolate which had “fair trade” on the label but had no prompted fair behaviour from me—but I did get a twenty-dollar voucher for my “ruined” Easter. And I received the more valuable reminder that I must always think of other workers as versions of myself. Always harried, always expected to do more than they should. Often unfairly trading a difficult smile for a wage.

There were two people at both ends of this bar of absent chocolate. There were two people at both ends of this conversation. I must remind myself to see beyond the thing that I am buying and the complaint that I am making to see toward the person I am addressing. Another worker, like me, who would like nothing more than to curl up in peace for half an hour and cram her face with chocolate.

Hate answering the phone? You might have social anxiety
Prefer to text or email rather than speak on the phone? Almost 11 per cent of Australians experience social phobia in their lifetime, and technology is partly to blame.
Empathy: Why we need to feel each other's pain
Even psychopaths are capable of feeling empathy. So what is empathy and why do we need to feel it?