Where Have All The Operators Gone?

They could be indentified by the bizarre round bruise on their upper chests...

It’s all my fault.

Well, actually; as easy as it is to strike guilt with me — it’s not *all* my fault. The obsolescence  of the telephone operator  is as a result of ever-emerging technologies which were already spinning well out of control by the time I came on board as a well-known voice of automated telephone prompts. Virtual Switchboards — which use IVR’s to sort callers and connect them to their destinations swiftly, around the clock, and cheaper than posting an actual human at the controls, was inevitable. I just came along at the right time in history to fulfill a need for uniformed, consistent, easy-to-use automated voices which never register disappointment, fatigue, and keep their emotions in check — and never ask for time off. It used to be that operators were essential if you needed anything other than calling telephones across a shared party line. Gradually their necessity faded as phone systems became more sophisticated.

Did you know that — casting against type — the very first telephone 0perator was actually a male by the name of George Willard Croy (in 1878)? And that the first female operator — Emma Nutt — put in place a few months after Mr. Croy — and hired by Alexander Graham Bell himself, if you don’t mind — reportedly could remember every number in the telephone directory of the New England Telephone Company? It’s also interesting to speculate on the fact that teenage boys were widely employed as telephone operators (due to their ability to shimmy up ladders to the higher jacks on the early floor-to-ceiling switching boards — they were, however, universally phased out due to their “unacceptable attitude and behavior”. That sounds about right.)  Back in the 1870’s, telephones were rented in pairs and could only talk to each other. It was not uncommon for small towns to have the switchboards installed in the operator’s home so that the operator could answer calls on a 24 hour basis. It took until the 1960’s for men to again be routinely hired for the job.

The nuts and bolts of the technology used to be painfully manual — when a call was received, a jack lamp lit up on the back panel and the operator responded by placing the rear cord in the jack and throwing the front key forward. The operator could now converse with the caller and find out to where they would like to be connected. If it was another extension, the operator placed the front cord in the associated jack and pulled the front key backwards to ring the called party. After connecting, the operator left both cords “up” with the keys in the normal position. Lamps alerted the operator when the conversation was finished and the parties went “on-hook”.

Being in complete control of calls, operators were naturally in the position to listen in on private phone conversations. With the advent of DDD Systems (Direct Dial) in the 20’s. labor costs were reduced and ensured greater privacy to the customer.

In her book “Your Call Is (Not That) Important To Us”, (an oft-quoted tome in this blog) Emily Yellin explains the meticulousness with which telephone operators were hired: “…They were required to be unmarried and usually between the ages of about eighteen and twenty-six. If they were married, they were let go. Dress codes meant they had to look prim and proper always, even though no subscribers would see them doing their jobs.”

Of great fascination to me is the elocution training given to operators as part of their rigorous training. Yellins explains: “They were taught to draw out certain words for clarity because early telephone lines were noisy. So the word please would be pronounced “pleeeyaz”. The number nine became “niyun” and the word line turned into “liyun.” What I always thought of to be a regional “tick” (or stereotype) was actually borne out of necessity to overcome the sound issues of early crude telephony lines.

The use of speech recognition, recorded  speech, and/or speech synthesis in modern directory assistance systems enables the entire call to be handled without live operator intervention — most systems recognize location and listing. If recognition confidence is high, the best result is played to the caller. If confidence is low, the caller’s request is played back to a live operator — as a last resort — who locates the correct listing. Directory Assistance charges can range from $1.25 (Local Directory Assistance — having the operator look up a number local to you) to $7.95 (getting the operator to dial Internationally on your behalf.)

Like most professionals which have gone through paradigm shifts as a result of newer technology taking over, the telephone operator has become almost an anachronism; a signpost of times which have come and gone — and I, for one — even earning a living working with the technology which essentially killed them — feel more than a pang of sadness to see the end of the “Hello Girls”. And just as they epitomized the reputation of gossipy, overly-involved members of their communities — privy to vast amounts of information they probably shouldn’t even know about — they humanized the medium of telephony. That personable, accessible “feel” is what IVR designers are after me to re-create every day that I voice phone prompts. “Just pretend you’re talking to your friend next to you,” they always urge; inviting me to capture that warmth and personability of a bygone day when the phone was actually answered. By an actual someone. And as an added bonus: someone who likely actually knows you.

Next blog will be early — likely Wednesday or Thursday of this coming week, as I blog live from Astricon in National Harbor, MD — Open Source Telephony’s biggest and most significant gathering of developers, coders, bug-killers, re-sellers, and general fans of Asterisk (of which I’m proud to be “the voice”) — I’ll be interviewing attendees and recapping the events that make this convention a “must-attend”!

Allison Smith is a professional voice talent, specializing in the voicing of telephone systems. Her voice can be heard on platforms for Bell Canada, Vonage, Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Asterisk, and Hawai’ian Telcom. She is an avid yoga practitioner, and lives in Calgary, Alberta. Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.


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