Voice and Empathy

Full disclosure. I do surveys. On the phone. For a marketing research firm.

No, no! Not a telemarketing firm! A research firm which uses survey results to improve the quality of the service offered by a client. Huge difference.

No, you most likely have not hung up on me. Very few people have done so and the readership of this blog is not such that it would be even remotely likely that you, dear reader, could be one of those few respondents who did hang up on me.

Why do I do it? Well, yes, it’s a job. A summer job, to be precise. But I could be doing (and have been doing) any number of other jobs. Yet, as an ethnographer, I felt compelled to give surveys a try. And I’m glad I did.

I actually did phone surveys as a summer job in 2005. Did it for the very reason that, while teaching ethnographic topics, I had been comparing ethnography with surveys even though I had never done surveys myself. Doing surveys on the phone seemed like a great way to learn more about those methods while getting an income at the same time. It worked like a charm.

Seems like I’m not the only one to think along those lines as I know at least two other anthropologists who are working at phone survey centres.

How do I like it? It’s really not so bad. The call centre where I work has a relatively nice atmosphere. More specifically, the supervisor and monitor provide exactly the type of supervision we need. Lots of positive feedback. Negative feedback is always given in a thoughtful manner. Both are very understanding and trusting with people who are serious at what they do. And there’s actually a notion of teamwork instead of competition.

I also learn a lot about myself. Not completely new things. Validation of what I thought of myself.

One is voice. My voice happens to be a valuable tool. Oh, I did notice this before. When I was in high school, some people kept telling me that I should become a news anchor or radio announcer because of my voice. The fact that I still had more of a European accent probably counted but it also had to do with actual voice quality. People thought I had a radio voice.

As shallow as it sounds, I do like my speaking voice. Not that it’s “the best voice ever” or that people stop me to tell me about my voice. But I do like the way I sound, overall. My voice used to be more pleasing than it is now. My GERD has had some detrimental effects on my voice. Especially my singing voice. But my voice is still pleasing enough that I receive positive feedback about it, on occasion.

The thing about my voice isn’t that it’s so good. But it’s a versatile voice and I do use it as a tool. It seems that I can adapt it to different situations, which is very useful.

Given my interests in acoustic anthropology, it should be no surprise that I think about voice fairly frequently. After all, I’m an audio guy. Like Steven Feld in Music Grooves, I wonder about the voice work of those women working for erotic phone lines. It would, in fact, be fascinating to do an ethnographic study of those workers, with a focus on voice work.

As anyone can guess, voice can also be quite important in teaching. I’m as much of an auditory learner as one can be. So, while teaching, I tend to use my voice for effect instead of other tools. It seems to work rather well with some people but I need to enhance my other teaching methods.

The other main thing doing phone surveys has taught me about myself is how empathetic I can get. Again, I knew this beforehand. I’m the kind of person who has a hard time watching a comedy about someone getting in all sorts of bad situations (“cringe” movies and such). I literally feel for them. When I watched The Sixth Sense, I felt the bullet enter my body.

Oh, sure. We’re all like that. But I get the feeling that my empathy levels are a bit extreme, at times.

Hannah Arendt would probably have said some negative things about this “personality trait” of mine. But I’ve learned to accept it.

What does this have to do with doing surveys on the phone? Quite a bit, actually. There are projects on which I can be very productive, mostly because of empathy. People hear that I care. Because I do care. A few other projects, I’m almost unable to do because of empathy. I need to get the feeling that those surveys can actually help improve the service people get. And I loathe being annoying to people.

On almost every survey I do at my current workplace, I can be very empathetic and it works very well. But I just worked on a project which was clearly annoying to respondents and it made me shrivel. The effect was quite intense. I had to take a long walk on my way back from work because I had realised something important about myself.

Hence this blog entry.

8 thoughts on “Voice and Empathy”

  1. It’s really interesting what you say about voice. I have a speaking voice that projects quite far and I sometimes feel unconfortable about that, because it seems to want to dominate. On the other hand, it’s great for oral presentation and teaching. As for empathy, it depends I guess. I have a hard time watching comedic sketches where people are put in really embarrassing situations too. And I hate watching skaters fall in competition. It kills me. I often skip the rest of the performance because I just can’t take it. I also cry when they DO make the spin. It’s really embarrassing. And don’t even mention movies.

    But strangely enough, I can also be quite aloof about other things. I’m not quite sure what exactly, but somethings just leave me unaffected, important things.

    Voice is a wonderful instrument and quite a powerful instrument if you know how to use it. I think charisma lies for the most part in voice, ehich explains why some ordinary looking even ugly looking individuals can have a magnetic effect on people.

  2. Charisma isn’t something I tend to think about much but, in this context, it leads me to think about interesting things.
    As you can notice, I’ve been thinking about what I project, quite a bit. In terms of teaching, this could be an important thing to do. In this case, there might even be a connection between charisma, voice, empathy, and teaching. Rhetoric, in the stronger sense. Working (with) an audience.
    The thing about empathy in my life is that it’s pretty much constant. That’s why the “PersonalDNA” thing about me being a “benevolent inventor” struck me so much.
    BTW, you’re clearly one of those people who use voice to great effect and I’m pretty sure I already commented on your ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

  3. Thanks for the comment about the voice. No actually you hadn’t mentioned that. But I am conscious of it. Also when I misuse it! My girls hate my angry voice, much more than what I say with it.

    I haven’t tried the personal DNA. I<m a little bit afraid of those things, even if taken with humour. But I believe in the power of rhetoric, in the classical sense ( as a way of delivering discourse, of communicating ideas).

    As for empathy, it<s wonderful quality to have. It can also be a curse.

  4. Well, one thing about your presentation style, I feel, is that you sound confident. I think that it’s especially important in contexts in which gender politics are important. As a man, if I sound too confident, people get intimidated. I believe that, in your case, you mostly sound convincing.

    I’m not so much into the “personality tests” and I did think about the potential implications of taking it on a service which might be using data in weird ways. But I enjoyed the “test” itself and I ended up displaying the results because I think it does represent me.

    The empathy part, I think I now feel more of the curse but I notice how much I’ve been using it as a dominant part of my life.

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful comment!

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