In my day job, I answer the “tip” line for a news organization. On any given day, I’ll field calls from people thinking they have an actual news tip, to callers wondering why their newspaper isn’t being delivered. They’re often either upset or anxious or frustrated. It’s a perfect simmer pot for some of the most extreme examples of “good, bad and ugly” behavior I’ve ever come across.
Here’s a look at some of what I’ve experienced.
Photo courtesy of 1950s Unlimited
via Flickr Creative Commons
This might be a tad self-serving, but to me, the “good” callers are those who are brief and to the point. Example: “Where do I send a press release for a new theater opening?” Perfect question, easy answer. Sometimes, though, people want to be chatty, and that’s good too. You just never know who you’ll meet or what information they might have. Sometimes, here in the south, these people will sign off with a “You have a blessed day now” that’s sure to bring a rush of warm fuzzies to my innards. These episodes don’t happen often, but when they do, I cherish them!
The Bad Caller
Some people think every event constitutes news that’s of interest to the rest of the community. These callers usually have agendas, and they take the “squeaky wheel” definition to new heights. If I direct that type of caller to a specific person, and if that person doesn’t call back within 15 minutes, he or she might call again. And again. And again. Sometimes these types of callers become belligerent, which brings us to…
The Ugly Caller
When I moved from Jersey to Virginia, I learned that “ugly” can mean something other than an unpleasing physical appearance. Here, it means a lack of grace in attitude or behavior, as in, “I don’t mean to be ugly, but…” And there is no shortage of ugly callers in my job. Here are a few that come instantly to mind.
My first day on the job, a woman called to find out the name of “the main congressman.” I said, “You mean the Speaker of the House?” No, she wanted to know the name of HER congressman. I told her it depends on where she lives, and that districts cross town boundaries, so I wouldn’t know. She said, “You’re a newspaper. You’re supposed to know.” When I suggested she call her local library (which would have reference librarians who do that kind of thing…right?), she snapped, “You’re pathetic. Who’s your supervisor?”
I soon learned that hers was not an uncommon call. People often call the newspaper for bits of general information. I learned that it’s usually better to just Google it and give them what they want. It’s faster and easier (and makes for better customer relations) than engaging a caller in a potentially unpleasant conversation.
|"Yelling Man" photo courtesy of Paul Cross
via Flickr Creative Commons
Even that doesn’t work at times, though. We have one regular caller who hates everything we do, and he leaves daily “love letters” on our voice-mail. He hates our writers, our stories, what we cover, our opinion pages. He hates our distribution, our pricing, our advertising. The man just hates. I started to feel sorry for him until I launched my own column and found myself in his cross-hairs. He hates my coverage topic, and regularly shares his opinion with me. I tried reasoning with him at first, until he sent me a letter saying I’m “a (word that rhymes with witch) who don’t know nothin’.”
It’s hard enough to read those words, but when those types of sentiments are left on voice-mail, it can be worse because the tone of voice can say so much more than the mere words. Just this past week I took a few days off so left an away message on my voice-mail. I received this message when I returned:
“Your boss must really appreciate yoooou ‘cuz I don’t. Useless voice-mail. Useless. I’m calling on Friday, and you telling me you’re not going to be in until Tuesday is even more useless.”
He said it in a belligerent, sneering tone of voice that really did send chills down my back. It was the kind of voice I’d use for one of my really bad guys. When I played the message for my husband, he wanted to call the cops!
The good news is that I’ll use his ugly words and tone in one of my villains some day, just as I’ve tucked these other callers in the back of my mind for the next time I need to breathe life into a fictional man or woman.
Working with real people is, after all, the perfect laboratory for examining true-to-life characters—the good, the bad and the ugly.