Everything in this story really happened.
It was never really my intention to apply for a job in a call centre. My intention, after graduating, was to write a brilliant screenplay or novel, break through in a spectacular fashion, and spend the rest of my life in a villa with a typewriter and a bottle of wine. Things hadn’t quite worked out that way, however, and so here I was, sitting in the canteen of Bell Sell.
My options in life had dwindled down to two at this point. To keep from going bankrupt, I could either take this job, or leave the country for a few months to volunteer on an organic farm. This last option had been suggested to me by my sister Anne, who had spent some time on a sheep farm in the south of France. It sounded idyllic, but what made me a little hesitant were the circumstances under which her stay there had ended. She had jumped on the first train back home when the farmer had started walking around with his testicles poking out from under his t-shirt
I was trying to visualize this when the door of the office opened and everyone got up. There were about fifteen applicants altogether, and we chatted a little to relieve the nerves as we crammed ourselves into the little room where the interview was going to take place. This was the point, in retrospect, at which I should seen the clues as to what I was getting into. For one, no less than six of the applicants had only shown up for the interview to fulfill a government requirement that allowed them to stay on welfare. For two, the boy next to me was loudly complaining about a lack of money before showing off his new iPhone. I wasn’t sure what to make of all this at the time, but I decided to wait it out. My choices were limited to this or watching the testicles of a French farmer, and I thought it would be unwise to rule anything out for the moment.
It was at this point that the door opened and the Übermensch walked in.
Our interviewer looked like a Ken doll as designed by a Nazi. His blond hair was gelled into spikes, and his eyes were a shade of blue so light that it looked as though they were the product of some creepy breeding program. He wore a white shirt that was both transparent and too small, so that we could see every muscle in his pumped-up torso move as he walked across the room. This was awkward enough to see on someone you hope will become your boss, but what really made me uncomfortable was his clearly visible nipple piercing. The man grinned at us, and introduced himself as Taco.
If Taco’s appearance had made me uncomfortable, it was his enthusiasm that made me downright worried. He talked about selling insurance over the phone with the kind of aggressive vigor that you normally tend to associate with religious extremists. To demonstrate how insanely serious he took his job, he told us that when one of the employees was absent without reason, he would send out other employees to actually go to their house and lift them off their bed. Considering that he was talking about people who worked for him, the Gestapo might not have been the most appropriate reference to illustrate his point here.
I started to get the feeling that I was in completely the wrong place. My previous employer had been a gentle young woman with red hair who ran a company that helped high school children with their homework. It wasn’t a job with great prospects, nor did it pay very well. Judging by the fact that I was fired, I wasn’t even very good at it. But it always gave me a sense of pride in my work to realize that I was helping other people. This place, on the other hand, seemed to have come from another universe altogether.
“Your sale is your mission,” Taco shouted, making fierce arm gestures. “It’s the only thing that matters here. When you’re on the phone, that sale is your only reason for existing.” I thought about the French farmer, and wondered if he would also require such intense levels of devotion from his employees. It seemed unlikely to me, and I pondered whether watching him walking around with his testicles exposed was a fair trade-off to make for not being lifted off my bed in the morning.
Taco, at this point, had launched into an anecdote that was meant to illustrate the concept of salesmanship to us. His story went something like this:
“When I received my first-ever bonus, I decided to buy a suit. A very expensive suit. My friends all told me that if I wanted a really good suit, I should buy a Hugo Boss. So I went to a shop in Leiden. It was a very expensive shop, and I was dressed in a t-shirt and slippers. The guy at the counter didn’t seem to like this very much. But I decided to stick around, because I had the day off, and I never know what to do with my time when I’m not working.
This detail came completely out of nowhere, and confused me even more. It seemed like a strangely desperate thing to share during a job interview. I wasn’t sure whether it made Taco more sympathetic or if it just made him creepier.
Taco continued: “So I stuck around there, until this guy finally gave me the time of day. We spent a few hours finding a good suit, and we found one, expensive, but it looked really good. I asked for the measurements. He gave them to me. I said thank you, went across the street, and bought the exact same suit for more money in a different shop. Then I went back, suit in hand, and gave the shopowner the finger.”
Taco grinned triumphantly at us, like a bullfighter who had just managed to wrestle his prey to the ground. Around me, people were looking a little confused. But before we could decide what to make off all this, Taco announced that we were going to have a break.
I drank a can of soda in the canteen, and noticed that people were leaving. After about ten minutes, only about half of the original group remained, and the interview wasn’t even over at this point. I considered my options in life again, and in my mind, I pictured myself on a crossroad, with a sign reading “French balls” pointing to the left, and a sign reading “Working for Taco” pointing to the right. I pondered the choice for a moment, and wondered if this was the universe’s way of telling me that it was high time to pick up drug dealing. But again, I decided to wait what was going to happen. After all, it couldn’t really get any worse than this.
The sun had gone down when we re-entered the room. I tried my best not to see this as symbolic, but then Taco started talking about manipulation tactics.
“You can make it very hard for people to refuse you when you ask suggestive questions,” he told us, fiercely chewing on a piece of nicotine gum that he took for his smoking habit.
“Make sure that the question only had one desirable answer, and that that answer is ‘yes’. Then ask a whole string of those. Customers find it impossible to refuse you when they’ve already said yes twenty times. Here, let me show you.”
He put the gum on the lip of his can of cola, and pointed to the person sitting closest to him.
“Let me start with you. Okay. So, in this example, I am pitching a charity that builds orphanages all around the world. Good evening, sir. Do you agree that every child has a right to a healthy and loving family?”
“Right.” He turned to the next applicant. “Do you then also agree that orphans need all the help and care they can get?”
Taco pointed to his next victim. “Our organization builds orphanages all around the world. Do you think this is a good thing?”
“Do you then also agree that it is important that we can keep doing our work?”
“Yes,” the girl he was pointing at admitted.
“And you understand, of course, that we can only keep doing our work with the help of people like you?”
“So, you understand that if we don’t get your donations, we can’t keep doing our work?”
He was pointing at me now.
I am fairly contrarian by nature, and most of my instinct at this point was telling me to say “No”. I don’t like being manipulated, and this man was not just manipulating me, but being completely frank about it. I just had to say the word to put a spoke in his wheels, but I realized that balking wouldn’t solve anything now. So I swallowed my pride, and gave the desired answer.
Taco walked back to his place in front of the room, and flashed a dirty grin at us. “You see? People are sheep,” he said, triumphantly. “We might not want to admit it, but the one thing we all want to do is fall in line.” Then he took his used gum from the can of coke and put it back in his mouth.
I’m not sure which part of this I found more disgusting. Taco was making a point about how easy people were to fall in line to a group of people he was sure wouldn’t contradict him, and seemed not just aware of this, but actually proud of it. The testicles of the French farmer were starting to seem almost seductive by now. Hell, he could walk around naked all day if he wanted to, as long as the only thing he expected me to treat like sheep were actual sheep. I had just about made my choice.
This was when Taco broke out the abortion story.
I think it bears repeating that this was still, technically, a job interview. I thought that it was common knowledge that certain topics are not very appropriate for a job interviews, genocide, say, or genital mutilation. Things like that. But Taco clearly wasn’t having any of that.
“Every year at Christmas,” he started, “there this parade of light in my home town. It’s organized by these creepy religious types, and the only reason I always go is that they hand out free cake. But, of course, when I go to get some, they always give me a speech about abortion. And they start of with a suggestive question: ‘Sir, do you think everyone has the right to life?’ Which they follow up, of course, with asking if I am against abortion. So I always tell them this.”
The people in the room were already looking a little uncomfortable, but Taco was on a roll, and continued: “I tell them that I work in the call centre business, and that we have a little policy. With the exception of CD’s, insurance policies that start the day after the sale, and lottery tickets, you have the right to return everything you don’t want until a week after you’ve bought it. I mean, imagine you’re a girl, and you get pregnant. You should be able to just take the thing out and send it back to the factory, right?” He illustrated this point by making a gesture as if he picked an apple from a tree and threw it against the wall.
Taco grinned triumphantly into the room, which had gone completely quiet. One boy carefully smiled at the story, but everyone else seemed mortified. The woman who had told us about her three children earlier was now staring vacantly out of the window. As for myself: the testicles of the French farmer were shining like two bright beacons in my mind’s eye, illuminating the path that lay ahead of me.
Taco smiled, and announced the final stage of the interview: the test calls. Everyone would have to pretend to call him, and try to sell him something of our own choice. We had five minutes to prepare, and go. Around me, people were looking at him with disbelief. The email that explained that this was going to happen had apparently only reached about half of us, and the other half now had to improvise an entire sales pitch on the spot. But Taco wasn’t letting anyone off, and started his first phone call.
Aside from the general nervousness for a job interview, people around me were now developing stage fright. The fact that the conversations were going to take place in the room with everyone present didn’t make it much better. At least two of them collapsed into stuttering nerves before they had even been able to make their pitch. Even so, Taco made sure to answer every question he was asked with the worst possible answer. It made sense from a business perspective, perhaps, but the delight in his voice as he reduced people to shambles was hard to interpret as anything else than gleeful sadism.
My mind was going over what I was going to sell Taco at this point. Had I been a little braver, I might have tried to push something horrendous on him, something like a box of boiled pig’s brain, or a life-sized blow-up doll in the shape of George Bush. But aside from being contrarian, I’m also a coward, so I just went for the ‘clever’ option and tried to sell him a revolutionary new way to stop smoking.
I was getting ready to leave when Taco, to my astonishment, actually offered me the job, and told me to come back the next day for training. He didn’t seem to notice that this was more of a threat to me than an offer. I went home as quickly as I could and applied for every single job, internship and volunteer work I was even remotely qualified for. I had hit rock bottom. The only way to go from here was up.
I did go back, the next day, to revoke my application in person. Taco seemed a little nonplussed by this, but I reminded him of his own policy that everyone should be able to come back on a decision until a week after they’ve made it, and then I left. Through a friend of mine, I found a job cleaning a café, and went to work the next day. The work was dirty and it barely paid my rent, but at this point, I was completely happy just for the fact that I wasn’t working for a psychotic Ken doll called Taco.