Music to my Ears

It’s the hold music that gets me. 

I’m calling to tell a large New England-based insurance company that my father has died, and I want to file a claim. I dutifully listen to the entire spiel by the generically accented phone voice, select numbers according to their options, and my call is promptly routed to a ringing line at a particular department, appropriate to my needs. But the rings end and they enthusiastically admit all their customer service specialists are currently helping other customers. So I wait on hold.

And while I’m waiting on hold, the large New England-based insurance company plays music that would work as background for some awkward office lunchroom gathering where nobody talks to Jim and all the pizza is gone by the time you get there. Bottom line, it’s top-of-the-morning-to-you cheerful music, and it seems to be endless. No escape, and definitely no sense of empathy.

I’m going out on a limb to propose that when a person calls a large business to report someone’s death – something I must have done more than a dozen times since Dad died in early January, and which plenty of others have had to do, and many others will have to – the hold music should be more appropriate for the occasion. I won’t suggest they all play Mozart’s brilliant (though unfinished) Requiem. I would appreciate the gesture. But it is a little dense and dramatic, and probably wouldn’t parse well for a hold tune.

Still, we should be offered something less bouncy, tinged with a bit of loss, like what you might imagine hearing at calling hours before the voices of friends and family reach that unintelligible mumbling murmur. 

The psychology of hold music likely parallels that of music selected for retail stores or the rest rooms of malls. The idea in those places, I believe, is to make you feel like you fit in (so the music is all familiar to the average shopper) and to keep your spirits up (but not so far up that you rush through your shopping).

Perhaps the large New England-based insurance company would defend its choice of bubbly tunes by insisting they were only trying to help us keep our spirits up, we many who call to report that death has visited our families. But for me, the feeling remains elusive that they somehow, to some small degree, in some manner, understand what we’re going through (notwithstanding their insistence later that they are sorry for my loss). Instead, it feels like they’ve purchased some generically cheery hold music on Amazon, plugged it in, and let it rip.

I know, complaining about hold music is probably as bourgeois as it gets. There are many circumstances far more upsetting in our churning modern world, some of which I should concern myself with before this topic. My apologies. But I have spent countless hours over the past month on hold, and the music has all been the same: suited for a lively (but not too lively) jaunt through the grocery store.

I would have welcomed a little less exuberance.

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Chris Galvin

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