Crosswired conversations

Author: Maraya Steadman '89, '90MBA

Maraya Steadman

Some months ago, the electric company called my husband at work so that he could pay the electric bill. The balance was a month overdue and without immediate payment they would cut off our power. My husband gave them our credit card number and sent me an email. The email said you didn’t pay the electric bill, paid with credit card, please figure this out. To his credit, his email was very polite.

Umphh. I have no idea why I didn’t pay the electric bill.

One afternoon shortly after receiving my husband’s email, I looked for the electric bill. I decided that I had never gotten a bill. My attention to the details of electrical usage are focused on exactly two situations that merit it: running around our old house turning off all the lights so we can make toast, or the three minutes it takes me every month to pay the bill sitting on my desk. If I don’t get the bill, I’m not going to pay it. I needed to figure out why I wasn’t getting an electric bill.

So, I called the electric company.

Calling the electric company is frustrating. I am not very good at speaking clearly into the phone. Something in my voice inflection always sends me to some other prompt I don’t need. Like the automatic water faucets in public restrooms, I’m just two degrees off center and can never get them to work.

I finally reached Nigel, a cheerful young man at a call center in South Asia. What is your name? How do you spell that? What is your account number? On it goes and 15 queries later I was finally asked, “Can I help you?”

Yes, yes you can. I complained that I had never received my bill.

“Oh, that is very terrible.”

“No, it’s annoying.”

“Would you like to pay your bill now?”

No, no, Nigel, I do not want to pay my bill. The bill is paid. What I want is my bill. At this point I realize that Nigel has a billing script. It’s his job to take my credit card information over the phone. That is what Nigel does. He lives in a developing South Asian country with cheap labor, high crime and a penchant for bribery. He asks 15 questions about my identity and then he takes my credit card information.

I am getting nowhere toward resolving the issue of receiving my bill, and I’ve got no idea what to do next. So I politely tell Nigel to have a nice night, and I start banging my head on my computer, which turns out to be as effective as calling the electric company in the first place.

Since my efforts were proving ineffective, I decide to implement my own call center strategy. I call the most efficient person I know, my friend Sarah. After my long explanation, which she cuts short, she tells me to just set up automatic billing.

She immediately emails me a five-year chart comparing her electrical usage by month and a link to the electric company website. The link took me directly to the place where all I had to do was answer the questions, input my bank account information and I would be done.

After entering my personal information I needed to protect my identity and my bank account information via some mundane security questions.

What is your favorite color?

I don’t have a favorite color. I have no idea. It isn’t blue.

What is your favorite animal?

I feel like I am being treated like a 4-year-old. It’s not a cheetah. I don’t have a favorite animal.

What is your favorite movie?

I don’t have a favorite movie. I haven’t seen a movie since my first child was born. And I am way over Tom Cruise and Top Gun.

What is your favorite song?

Well, I have three young children so I listen to a lot of children’s music. But children’s music isn’t my favorite.

I like “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson, not Janis Joplin. I like the Joplin version, it’s just that I think Kristofferson did a better job with it and it’s his song anyway. So that probably means that as much as I like blues, I like country more.

Then, of course, there is rock. And that depends completely on my mood. Sometimes Metallica at 5:30 in the morning is perfect. Sometimes not.

I haven’t even thought about jazz yet. I love all that “dinner party drinking martinis grown up” music.

I cannot answer this question!

Whatever happened to your mother’s maiden name? Oh dear, this is terrible. Who has a favorite song?

I call my husband at work.

“What’s your favorite song?”

“The one we danced to at the first dance at our wedding.”

“We didn’t have a band, a DJ, a dance floor or a first dance at our wedding, nice try.”

“Well, I don’t know. I guess it depends on my mood. But if I had to choose one song I guess my all-time favorite would be ‘Go Your Own Way’ by Fleetwood Mac, because it’s kind of the theme song for my life.”



“You are working for the man. You live in a three-bedroom house in the suburbs with three kids, two dogs and a minivan. ‘Go Your Own Way’ is the theme song for your life?”

“What are you doing?”

“I am paying the electric bill.”

This is taking forever. I have now also learned that my husband is apt to go his own way to a midlife crisis that I can only hope doesn’t affect my health insurance premiums. And now I’m getting pissed.

At this point I realize this is a computer program asking these questions. Really, I can answer them any way I want to. Who is there to know if I actually answer the question about my favorite color with a color? This realization turns into amusement as I vent my frustration by answering all these ridiculous questions by banging out words of vulgarity.

Giggling to myself, I am quite pleased when, at last, my online account and my direct payments are activated.

Everything would have been fine, except that I got mad at my bank and changed banks. This changed all of my bank account numbers. I forgot that I had an automatic payment set up, and I forgot to change my bank account information on file with the electric company. Our payment bounced.

They called my husband at work to ask for an immediate payment as well as a deposit and told him he was now on probationary status. So he sent me an email: The electric company called, your payment bounced, we are now on probation, how much did you pay for your Notre Dame accounting degree? These emails were starting to get a bit snippy.

Since I still wasn’t receiving a bill and I could no longer pay my bill automatically, I had no more ideas on how I was going to pay these people. I had to call them.

Again, I was connected to the call center in South Asia. In order to verify my identity the first question asked was “What is your favorite color?” The woman had no sense of humor. I can’t blame her. If I lived in a developing South Asian country with cheap labor, I don’t think I would have much of a sense of humor relative to American vulgarity either. I was promptly redirected.

When the speaker on the phone spoke in perfect American English, I knew I had reached a higher level on the customer service food chain. I began to fantasize about talking to the president of the electric company. The ultimate electric customer fantasy, being able to tell the president of the electric company what I thought about his customer service and his security questions. My fantasy came crashing back when I was told that I was no longer speaking with customer service, but with security.

“Security!? Look, I just want to pay my bill.”

“Yes, ma’am we recognize that, but at this point you have made threatening remarks to the electric company.”

“Well, I don’t agree. I don’t think ‘Bite me’ is a threat. It’s more of a directive.”

“No, ma’am, vulgarity is threatening.”

“Look, a threat by definition needs to express an intent, and I did not express an intent. I think I was being creative, not threatening.”

“Actually, ma’am, ‘Bite me’ isn’t very creative. We get a lot of ‘Bite me,’ and I’ve seen much better creative expressions of vulgarity.”

“Oh yeah, well, what’s your favorite?”

Maraya Steadman, who lives in a Chicago suburb, is a stay-at-home mother of three children. See her weekly The Playroom column at She can be reached at