BY MARK MATHOSIAN
Telephone Operator – noun – someone who helps callers get the person they are calling (from Dictionary.com)
When was the last time you dialed “0” on your phone for operator assistance? If my guess is accurate, it’s been a while. With today’s smartphones, most of the time there is no need to ask for help when you can simply Google it. For the fun of it, I did a little research on the history of telephone operators and then made a phone call for assistance. The research was enlightening, and the experiment was fun.
To my surprise, according to the Telecommunications History Group on the web, the first telephone operators were men. More specifically, back in the late 1800s, they were teenage boys. The boys were recruited from the fading telegraph industry where they were employed as telegraph messengers. However, that didn’t last long because the boys were often engaged in horseplay with foul language and described as rude and rambunctious. The solution was to replace the boys with girls, with the theory being that young women would “present a more gentle image to customers.” I guess they were right because by 1890 and thereafter, the position of telephone operator was mostly designated to women and the operators’ tones grew softer and more polite. Eventually, in response to equal rights legislation, women also began to fill other positions, such as telephone installers and repair technicians. Men would continue to be employed as operators, but they never again dominated that profession.
After doing historical research, I visited YouTube and watched a vintage documentary titled “Operator” produced by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1969. It was about switchboard telephone operators and how they performed their jobs. The film showed Operators wearing headsets at work, answering calls for telephone assistance and transferring callers to the appropriate party. I jotted down some of the ways Operators in the movie answered their phones. See if you remember any of these.
“Directory assistance, may I help you?”
“This is long distance, may I help you?”
“Overseas, may I help you?”
“May I help you?”
“Your call, please?”
“Would you like to make a note of that number?”
“Sir, this is the satellite circuit.”
“You can call long distance from your phone and save money, dial 212 and the number.”
For kicks, I dialed 0 for an operator from my home landline phone. The call did not go through, even though my touchtone telephone has the abbreviation “OPER 0” on the handset. Instead, I had to dial 411 for local directory assistance. That’s when a very pleasant electronic female voice said, “Welcome to Yadkin Valley Telecom, your call may be recorded for quality purposes. What city and state, please?”
I did not respond, and the automatic Operator said, “Please say the name of the city and state now.” When I again did not respond, I was told, “Please hold for an Operator.” I was then transferred to a live female operator, who immediately asked, “What city and state please?” She had an agreeable voice and tone, and when I told her I was just testing my telephone, she replied pleasantly, “OK, have a nice day.”
Here is a tip for you. Don’t dial 411 on your landline for help unless you are willing to pay a fee of about $2 or more. Your cell phone service provider probably also charges a fee so check with them before you dial for assistance. Instead, try 1-800-FREE-411 (1-800-373-3411). This is a free directory service sponsored by advertisers. You must listen to a few short ads, but doing so will definitely save you money.
Last but not least, in the 1969 AT&T movie, an Operator made a point I believe is as meaningful today as it was back then. She said, “It’s nice when someone says thank you.” Therefore, to all the telephone operators out there I say, “Thank you, your assistance was, and is, greatly appreciated.”