Press 1 if you've had enough

1st October 1999 at 01:00
THE BIZARRE association of two recurring dislikes flashed across my life the other day. The first hate is recorded messages, the second is help-lines. I have to use them, but I loathe those indifferent mechanical voices.

There is nothing more infuriating than ringing a helpline and getting a recorded message. You are at your wit's end, but all you get is the speaking clock: "Welcome to the Acme Infotech helpline. If your computer is on fire, press 1; if you are so frustrated you are about to smash it to pulp with a sledgehammer, press 2; for all other enquiries, press 3." Sod off.

A research funding body I was applying to has just gone over to electronic application forms. This would be fine if they had been conceived with humans in mind.

Unfortunately they are aimed at deranged Martians with nothing better to do with their lives than work out how the damned things function.

"Hello. Oh thank goodness I've got through at last. Only your phone has been engaged for ages."

"Welcome to the research application helpline. I'm sorry I'm not able to speak to you at the moment, but if you leave your name and telephone number, someone will call you as soon as possible."

"You bastard. You unmitigated heartless bastard. I've dialled my fingers to the bone to get through and you swan off somewhere ...", Eventually I got through to a very helpful human being.

The reason we need helplines is because systems have been set up to suit their begetters rather than their users.

Even though I am well used to the funny ways of computers, my new friend had to steer me through a completely meaningless process.

"Go into 'settings' and choose 'printers'."

"Right, I've done that."

"Now select 'Apple laserwriter II NTX'."

"But I haven't got an Apple printer, or an Apple computer, for that matter."

"I know. But we're going to fool your computer into thinking that you have." Oh good. So I'm now reduced to playing practical jokes on my wretched computer.

Even worse are the helpline people who have been on telephone courses, but are otherwise clueless. You can recognise them immediately because they start off with the totally unreal: "Hello, my name's Damian. How can I help you?".

Probably by having a head transplant, is the answer, as Damian is some spotty airhead with a set of written instructions which he will read out in an uncomprehending way. Ask for a 'supervisor' and you get Sharon, who has been there two weeks longer.

So when the new helpline for stressed teachers was announced I did have a few wobbly moments. It is a good idea, long overdue, but how will it work? Will it be like Alcoholics Anonymous, staffed by fellow sufferers who understand.

"Hello, Mephistopheles here. How can I help?"

"Is that the teachers' helpline? Only I'm feeling really stressed and I don't know where to turn. We've got SATs starting tomorrow and . . ."

"Don't tell me. We're the same. Half our staff are in hospital."

I once thought of founding Teachers Anonymous for people scared to admit that they teach for a living. "My name's Sally and I'm a teacher." Thunderous applause and cries of "Right on!" from fellow sufferers. After television series such as The History Man and Porterhouse Blue, many of us working in universities went into denial and tried to pretend we were bus conductors.

Will the teachers' helpline be tough in its response, merciless with wimps?

"I'm a headteacher and I'm suffering from acute stress, as our parents are so demanding."

"Pull yourself together, you snivelling worm. Don't expect any sympathy from me, you pathetic little creep."

"Er, I think I'm feeling a bit better now, thank you." Worst of all, will the new helpline be fully automated, complete with Dalek.

"Hello. I'm absolutely desperate. I'm a stressed teacher and I'm thinking of killing myself."

"Welcome to the stressed teachers' helpline. If you are planning to shoot yourself, press 1. If you prefer throwing yourself out of the window, press 2.

For all other types of suicide, press 3."

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