Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Hold on a moment

A couple of days ago I was in one of those First World Problems situations that is nonetheless extremely annoying: I was stuck on hold.

In this case, I was trying to get through to my auto dealer's service department, which was Experiencing Higher Than Average Call Volume.  It always is, even though any statistician could explain why that's impossible.  Anyhow, after being assured that My Call Is Extremely Important To Them, I was treated to twenty minutes of on-hold music.

It'd be one thing if it'd been some light classical music, or even smooth jazz, although the latter is really not my thing.  The on-hold music my auto dealership chose was some sort of weird electronica that sounded like a robot getting a blowjob from a dial-up modem.  There were random beeps and boops that were at least vaguely melodic, but it was accompanied by a synthesized percussion track that did nothing but go SHWACK-SHWACK-SHWACK over and over and over.

Presumably this is meant to be entertaining to the on-hold person.  Me, I wanted to throw the phone across the room.  On the other hand, if I'm being completely honest, I have that reaction to telephones in general.  If I were to rank my preferred means of long-distance communication, in order, they would be:

  1. email
  2. text
  3. direct message on social media
  4. literally every other form of communication ever invented, including carrier pigeon and Pony Express
  5. telephone

I have a Pavlovian response to the telephone ringing.  However, unlike Pavlov's dogs, when the bell rings I don't salivate, I swear loudly.

But I digress.

The phenomenon of on-hold music has been the subject of a good bit of research.  It's been around for a while; it was the brainchild of one Alfred Levy, who back in 1966 discovered it more or less accidentally when the telephones in the factory he owned started picking up a broadcast from the radio station next door, and customers on hold mentioned how nice it was not to have to wait in silence.  (He patented the idea, and here we are.)  In 2002, a study by Guéguen et al. found that music triggered people to underestimate the actual time they'd spent on hold.  Presumably this is an indication that the on-hold person found the experience more pleasant than waiting in silence would have been.  

This generates a problem, though; musical tastes vary dramatically.  So how do you decide what to treat your on-hold customers to?  A person who prefers Chopin preludes might not appreciate being forced to listen to "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails.

(Personally, I'd like either one.  I have ridiculously eclectic tastes in music.  When I put my iTunes on shuffle, it can cause musical whiplash as it goes from Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach cello sonata directly into Linkin Park.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Tim Parkinson, Man speaking on mobile phone, CC BY 2.0]

The solution was to use what the industry has nicknamed "beige music" -- tracks that are bland and inoffensive.  In a classic example of aiming for the middle and missing everybody, the unfortunate result is that by offending no one, it annoys the fuck out of just about everyone.  (Seriously; is there anyone out there who actually likes on-hold music?)  There's also the problem that music licensing fees are expensive, so rather than paying for music that's at least reasonably pleasant, many businesses go for the cheapest option, like one local place that simply cycles through the same eight bars of monotony for as long as you're on hold, only pausing periodically to remind you that Your Call Is Still Very Important To Us, No Stop Rolling Your Eyes Really We're Serious It Is.

Me, I'd vastly prefer silence to "beige music."  If I want to listen to music when I'm on hold, I can pull up iTunes and make my own choices.  Despite the research, I am always in a significantly worse mood after being subjected to a half-hour of Yanni or Kenny G than I would be simply left to my own thoughts.  After all, if I'm on hold, I know I'm going to be waiting for the Next Available Customer Representative; that's kind of the point.  Having to wait for the NACR, and simultaneously being forced to listen to music I hate, doubles the unpleasantness.

Maybe I'm unusual in this respect, I dunno.  If you believe Guéguen et al., there must be at least a few people who prefer on-hold music over silence.  It's possible that since I detest telephones anyhow, for me there's nothing that would improve the experience short of ending it sooner.  But unfortunately, on-hold music is here to stay, so I guess I'll have to continue putting up with nondescript smooth jazz, looped monotony, and the soundtrack to robot porn.


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