by Gwyn Headley
The Data Protection Act is another great law like Helf ‘n’ Saiftay — you can use it to hide behind, use it offensively, obstructively or aggressively. Or all four. It is a Godsend to the sort of mindset that seems to run through half the population.
Don’t you know there’s a war on?
I was only doing my job.
I’m alright, Jack.
It’s more than my job’s worth
Computer says no.
Now they have the law on their side, and it’s infinitely adaptable. I’ve been calling some photographic companies recently on the phone — a shocking enough tactic nowadays, given the silence that lies heavy over most offices today — and the reactions have been varied, to say the least.
Look, I’m guilty of this myself. The smaller the company, the more guarded and suspicious the response. People ring up fotoLibra and say “Can I speak to the managing director or the owner of the company please” and frankly that’s as far as they get. We always apologise before we put the phone down, because that’s how we were brought up.
Some of them have done a little research. “Can I speak to Miz Gwine Heeedlee please?” Depending on how mindless the caller sounds, I either switch to basso profundo — s p e a k i n g ? — or warily ask who is calling. At the moment the calls are about water coolers or investment plans.
But the boot is on the other foot when it’s me making the calls. I’ve got something they should be interested in. The default state is that they’re not, of course, and it’s a tough barrier to break down. The big problem is getting through to the right people.
First there’s the voicemail barrier. Speaking to someone is never one of the options. As soon as I hear voicemail kicking in, I hit Nought, which usually gets me the operator. Here comes the operator barrier. If you have a name, there’s firstly the tone of disbelief, as if you’ve asked to speak to Pol Pot or Robert Mugabe, then the suspicion that he left the company late last century.
Then the Data Protection Act kicks in. “I’m sorry, we’re not allowed to give out names.” What am I going to do with them? Make voodoo dolls?
If you’re lucky, you might be allowed to get through to a department in the company.
The person who picks up the phone at this stage is one of two people. Either it’s the trainee managing director, on her way up through the glass ceiling, or the deputy assistant’s secretary’s temp’s daughter, who happens to be eating her McDonald’s by the phone.
The TMD is a whirlwind of efficiency, all instant comprehension, ‘right’ being the most crucial word in her vocabulary, barking out rapid fire instructions and leaving you bathing in a warm glow of efficiency. Nothing at all will happen.
The temp’s daughter will not know what to do. You run through your pathetic spiel, trying to rid yourself of the mental image of a golden retriever listening to Wittgenstein. At the end, there’s a silence. “Err, yurrr. Can you send us an email?” Nothing at all will happen.
I do what’s wanted anyway. Then I follow up. Sometimes I strike gold. The largest company I spoke to listened to what I had to say, said “That sounds great, but you need to speak to Jerome. Here’s his mobile number.”
I’m too awed to call.