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"Sorry to Bother You" and the Lure of the Power Caller

"Sorry to Bother You" and the Lure of the Power Caller

We love a good workplace comedy, don't we? We really love it when the little man triumphs in the end and leaves his hated job, especially if his officious manager is humiliated in the process. It's near-pornographic wish fulfillment, and about as likely to happen in real life as porn itself.

Sorry to Bother You is the workplace comedy to end them all, with a third act that is so delightfully bizarre that you wonder if you were shot with a tranquilizer dart at one point and woke up in a different movie starring the same cast. It takes the important, rarely seen step of reminding the audience that most people with joyless, underpaid jobs are there because they have to be, not because they choose to be, and a grand "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore" walk-off is simply not feasible. Cassius, the protagonist, applies for a call center job because he has no other options, and is so desperate to be hired that he makes a fake "employee of the month" plaque to bring to the interview. Despite the lowly working conditions and commission pay scamming, he wants to succeed, and when his co-workers go on strike, he breaks the picket line. He needs the money, he explains. His uncle, who Cassius lives with, is about to lose his house. He simply can't afford to stand up for himself.

In the era of "hustle culture," where settling for a 9 to 5 job is considered a crushing defeat, and meant to be inspiring stories about people who gave up the rat race in favor of buying a farm in Vermont, there's a willful refusal to accept that most people in soul-numbing, dead end jobs are trapped. They lack the experience, the education, the connections, and most importantly, the time to look for something better, and so they make do. The less money they make, the less likely they are to be in a position to just quit. Employers know this, which is why they can get away with scheduling their staff just under the required minimum hours to qualify for medical insurance. It's why a staggering amount of companies don't offer paid maternity leave. It's why such contradictions in terms as "mandatory overtime" exist. They know that if you're not in that cubicle or standing behind that cash register, it'll just be someone else tomorrow. People are an infinite resource, easily disposable and even more easily replaceable.

My own "because I needed the money" story didn't take place at a call center. No, it was lower than that--it was a collections agency, for the biggest student loan company in the country. I cringed at the thought of it then as much as I do now, but after three months of papering an entire city with my resume and getting nothing for my trouble except a few indifferent interviews and being told that the position was already filled but perhaps they'd give me a call if something else opened up in the future, this was the first place that not only was willing to hire me, they hired me on the spot. It was a relief at the time. I had just enough money in my bank account to keep it open. I was sleeping on a couch. I had no time to be picky about what sort of job I should have been taking. 

Surprising no one who knew me, least of all myself, I was terrible at the collections part of being a collections agent. However, I was great at offering forbearance, which for some reason the system counted as the same thing as getting a payment, and so I earned credit for retaining an account. About two months after I started, everything was overhauled. Middle management was replaced by "team leaders," which is never a good sign, no matter how positive and morale building it's supposed to sound. It was announced that the company would start offering bonuses, which, as we know now, is transparently how companies get their employees to work harder without having to pay them a higher base salary. It was an exciting roll out, with promises of making hundreds of extra dollars per month by offering clients "debt solutions," a nice way to describe suggesting that they sell all of their belongings and move in with their parents in order to pay off their student loans.

The goal posts were immediately and constantly moved. First, incentives were given out to everybody who was able to make their quotas. Then, when too many people succeeded, it was changed so that quotas were team based, not individual. This, the team leader explained, would create a sense of camaraderie and encouragement, and even he didn't sound like he believed what he was saying. After a month or two of that, and still too many people were getting financially compensated for their hard work, it was changed so that incentives would be awarded on a quarterly basis. It would also be tiered, with only the top three performing members on each team getting cash bonuses, while everyone else would get t-shirts with the company logo on them, or retractable ID lanyards that presumably you could use to strangle yourself for not working harder (or strangle your competition).

The top three performers were exactly the type of people we associate with working in collections--relentless, aggressive, and willing to make vague threats that had no legal standing, but could still scare someone into sending their last fifty bucks anyway. Given my dislike of both confrontation and competition, I only ever came away with a t-shirt. By that point I was mostly out the door anyway, but not because I had found a different, better job, but because I was moving all the way across the country. And even then, I found myself in the exact same position, too many people, not enough jobs, and an almost immediate sense of desperation.

I applied for a job at a bank, and even though I checked off that I could work at all but three branches, some of which would have me traveling up to two hours a day one way, the interviewer wrote LIMITED AVAILABILITY at the top of my application and sent me on my way. I applied for positions that had already been filled, bait and switch "customer service" jobs that were really 100% commission based sales positions, "work at home" scams, and call centers, so many call centers. I learned to recognize the want ad jargon for call center jobs: "strong communications skills," "meeting targets," "potential career growth." I didn't want to work at a call center, but I would if I had to. I needed a job.

I was about to take one of those call center jobs, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere in Brooklyn, with a company so disorganized that the hiring department neglected to pass on my information to the training department. I wasted several hours of my life, some of them in frustrated tears, trying to get this straightened out, not wanting to think about what kind of shady operation I was about to work for when a simple question of whether or not someone had been hired couldn't be easily confirmed. And then, at the last minute, I was saved, hired for a real job for a real company, with a real salary (albeit still a middling one) that didn't depend on how many phone calls I made per day. 

But that's the thing, isn't it? My differentiation--I had been hired for a real job. The call center job would have been a real job (real terrible, ha ha ha). My job as the collections agency was a real job. All jobs are real jobs, and the fact that we do insist on differentiating is yet another reason why people ultimately stay stuck in jobs they hate. What incentive do we have to accept that we deserve more if we can't even get a "real" job? What point is there in trying harder?

This attitude, of course, is what Cassius's employer in Sorry to Bother You, and millions of other employers across the country, depend on when putting their employees through the wringer, when offering carrots on sticks, when expecting people to accept that they could spend forty hours or more a week reading scripts, making calls, and aggressively pushing whatever it is they're trying to sell, and not come away with a dime, because they didn't make quota. Those seats will always be filled. People need jobs, and will go to great lengths to keep them. Smashing capitalism is a nice thought. The little man rising up and taking what's his from the corporate masters is the ultimate power fantasy. But it doesn't pay your bills. You'll still show up for work tomorrow, just as Cassius does at his job.


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