By Gregory Clark, February 17, 1923
Training 3,000 Really Human Girls Not To Talk Back When They Are Barked at – a Triumph of Feminine Psychology.
What is your favorite telephone hate?
Wrong number? Line busy? Cut off? Delay in getting central?
All old stuff. We’ve heard a good deal about YOUR hates.
What about the girl at the other end of the wire? What is central’s favorite hate?
Without exception, the hello girl gives it to the tired business man who roars, snarls, swears, growls, groans and yells.
It all the assorted sounds that are sent in over the wires in one day to a downtown central office of the telephone company were saved and set loose at once, it would sound very much like Ringling’s Circus at feeding time in the big tent.
Men are the worst offenders in rattling the nerves of the swift fingered girls who handle the delicate nerve-system of the telephone exchange. But there are women offenders, too. There is a sweet, meowing kind of lady who can say the cattiest things–
How few wrong numbers you get, how astoundingly few errors you are served with in your daily use of your telephone you will never know, you can’t know, until you have seen the system, have a faint, superficial idea of this miracle of wire and buttons which, in the city of Toronto alone, handles from one million and a quarter to one million and a half telephone calls every twenty-four hours.
Errors occur – in which it has been fairly estimated that YOU are in perhaps half the cases partly to blame.
Delays occur – many of which are caused by YOU taking the time to express your opinion of the girl at central.
And in at least half the errors that do occur the central girl on whom you pour out the vials of your wrath has no more to do with the error than the lady in the moon.
Let’s take a case in point.
Suppose you are phoning from your home in a Parkdale number to another Parkdale number.
The central to whom you give your number reaches with the plug from your phone direct to the hole under the number you have asked for.
Now suppose the lady you are calling is upstairs and is slow answering her phone. You get impatient. You can hear it ringing all right, but you begin to think something is wrong. So you start rapidly clicking your receiver hook up and down.
This causes something strange to happen on central’s board in front of her. When you first took your receiver down, a light lit in front of central. When she plugged in to answer you that little light went out. As soon as you hang up your receiver, that light comes on again, as a sign that you are through. Central promptly switches the cord out of your number and you are disconnected.
Now, when you begin jiggling your hook up and down, that light comes off and on, off and on, but so rapidly that it appears to be on. That is central’s sign to disconnect. She does so. It is your fault.
If you want central, move that hook slowly up and down, to the beat of a grandfather’s clock.
Have you ever been called out of bed to answer the phone, only to find when you get there that there is nobody on the line, and central asks politely: “Number?”
Say your phone is in the Hillcrest exchange. Somebody in the North exchange has decided to call you up. The North person gives his central your number. That central does not, cannot give him the number direct. She presses a button on her board which automatically connects her with the Hillcrest exchange, and a girl in the Hillcrest building, miles away, takes the number, gives the North girl the number of a “trunk line” to put your friend through, and then your phone starts ringing.
In the meantime the North girl and the Hillcrest “trunk line” girl go on with their automatic labor of answering other little lights and switching thirty-four plugs and cords about their board.
Your friend listens to your phone ringing. He wonders at the delay. He looks at his watch and discover it is much later than he had thought. He doesn’t want to get you out of bed. So he hangs up the receiver.
On come the lights in his central’s office. His central promptly pulls out the plug. The light comes on in the Hillcrest “trunk line” girl’s board, and out comes her plug.
By this time you are at the phone and are prayerfully yelling “hello, hello,” and variations thereof.
Suddenly you hear central’s quiet voice say “number,” just as if nothing was amiss.
You roar. You rave.
“I’m sorry,” says central, “there is no one on your line now.”
“Well, what do you mean dragging me out of bed?”
And the fact is, of course, this little girl yon are speaking to doesn’t know any more about your mysterious call than you do. The call had been handled by two switchboards that she didn’t see, one miles away, the other in a different part of the building. In fact, until your friend’s plugs were pulled out after he had hung up, and until you lifted the receiver off, no light came on the board of this central of yours.
She is no more to blame than the lady in the moon. And if she cuts you off in the middle of your abuse you have a hemorrhage.
When you are cut off in the middle of a conversation, be sure of several things before you raise your voice. If you are talking from an office where there is a private switchboard, the cutting may have been done by the fair lady who presides at this board, for in most offices she is not only switchboard operator, but office boy, stenographer, private secretary to the head clerk and several other things. Then if you are speaking to someone outside your own exchange, as from Main to Junction, it may not be the central you can speak to at all, but the girl away out in West Toronto.
So don’t blame the only girl you can speak to.
The telephone company is listening in all the time for the purpose of checking their staff, a whole platoon of supervisors and instructors being employed in every exchange for this purpose every hour of the day. These experts declare that at least half the wrong numbers are due to the indistinct speaking of the person asking for the number, or to the defective memory of the customer, who asks for Main 6017 when the number he wants to Main 6107 – and when he gets what he asks for, Main 6017, says to the party at the other end:
“Oh. I’m sorry, central gave me the wrong number.”
Only the rules of the company prevent the supervisors who overhear such conversations as that from taking their revenge and yelling over the phone a triumphant –
The telephone is a miraculous development of a thousand frail things into a substantial and ever-ready service to mankind. Back of that box on your wall is a mechanism so intricate as to stun a layman.
It is also a triumph of psychology. To take three thousand girls, feminine to their fingertips every one, and train them not to talk back – what more profound reform of feminine nature than that? Yet despite the blame and the bullying they are subjected to (a thing which is decreasing every year in marked degree), they must not talk back, however innocent they are, however in the wrong the bully is. Speed is the watchword! Service! And to every irate subscriber they must be polite, lest they prolong the argument, and delay the service with its million and a half calls a day!
But it is not merely mechanical after all. The girls are human. Many of them are strained and unnerved by the grumblers and barkers. The girls get to know the plug holes or “jacks” of the chronic grouses. They come to detest that man – unseen, but visualized as a fat, mottled-faced crank – oh, they are human enough to fancy the faces behind those little plugs, behind those voices kind or rough, quiet or petulant, smiling or snarling.
Human! You ought to see the long distance office. Girls on roller skates! Yes, sir! Young girl messengers whizzing about that big room from board to board, carrying the memos of calls from one town to another by means of one roller skate, propelling themselves with one foot and scooting like streaks on the ether, from Toronto to North Bay or Belleville, that is to say, the boards representing those towns. It looks like great fun. But it’s work – for you, that you might be served with speed. Some time when you are in Eaton’s, drop into the Grill Room at 10.30 a.m. or 3 p.m. and see the demonstration the telephone company is putting on there in connection with the Made-in-Canada exhibit all the month of February. They have the switchboards up, and girls demonstrating the entire process, with all the points referred to in this article graphically explained by means of little dramatic skits.
Editor’s Note: The early days of phones usually required the need to talk to an operator and give the number, which could include the name of the exchange you were calling. Toronto had a 2-letter, 4-number system until 1957 when it switched to a 2-letter, 5-number system to meet new North American standards. The letters could be converted to numbers seen on the dial, which could also accommodate direct dialing without the need of an operator. The letter system was dropped from directories in 1966 when the conversion to 7 numbers was completed.