Saturday, July 14, 2012

Strawberry Shortcake meets Marilyn Monroe: the rise of the babytalking businessbabe

If you’ve been on a conference call anytime within the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard her. No matter where you work – a struggling nonprofit, a snappy startup or a giant conglomerate – odds are that one of your colleagues is, well, a babytalker. She’s a nice girl, of course (you’d never really think to call her a woman). Perhaps her credentials are impeccable, and her work ethic is superb, but every time this chick opens her mouth, you think she’s going to invite you to sleep over at her house, share her new pink canopy bed and do each other’s hair.

I noticed my first babytalker several years ago.  “Poor thing,” I thought as she squeaked out her highly breathy comments, “probably a glandular condition. Or too much estrogen in her drinking water.” Then these dollies began to creep up in increasingly scary numbers in many of the offices where I freelance, and I had to admit that it was a verifiable phenomenon.

Sometimes the talker is pure sweetness and pre-adolescent light, like Minnie Mouse with an Outlook account. Occasionally she adds a bit of spice to the vocal mix, and you suddenly begin to wonder if she’s taking the weekly team conference call from the high rollers’ suite at Caesar’s Palace, where she’s been escorting some Russian plutocrats on a junket – and finishing the pivot tables on that third quarter revenue analysis for the sales department, of course.

Whenever I have a conversation with a babytalker, I become hyper-aware of my own voice, which suddenly sounds suspiciously low to me. I am a female, right? Then why do I sound so competent? As soon as I hang up the phone, I have an urge to put on lipstick and a pair of high heels, just to counteract my feelings of inadequacy. But, given that I work in a home office, wearing the Kendrick Works World Headquarters uniform of shorts and t-shirt, that might scare the UPS man on his next visit.

With a helpless tone of voice, of course, can come actual helplessness, as I’ve learned to my peril. I’ve encountered more than a few babytalkers who seem very good at getting mommy and daddy – whoever happen to be the actual grownups on a project – to help little ol’ her get that nasty ol’ work finished. I ran into this recently with a fast-turn proposal I’d been asked to pull together for one of my agency clients. I’d already had a couple phone conversations with the sales guy, whom I adore. We’ve known each other forever, and we’ve got a great shorthand going. He talks fast, I listen fast, then I talk a little faster, and we can accomplish a day’s worth of work in about ten minutes.

For this project, we had to call in another staffer at the agency, one who had some special expertise, I was told. When we all got on the conference call, I began to wonder what that expertise was, and if it involved the ancient art of Terpsichore in connection with male lap regions. The conclusion of the call was that there wasn’t much she could do to help, that she really thought a big, strong girl like me probably knew a whole lot more and could use all those confusing nouns and verbs and whatchamacallits to write it all up by the deadline.

Sure, I heard myself saying, in a voice that suddenly sounded to me like Dinty Moore. I’ll be happy to do that. We hung up. My phone rang thirty seconds later.

“What was that?” the sales guy shouted in my ear. “What if we have to put her in front of our customer? She sounds like she’s reading her fifth-grade report on Why I Like Ponies! Kendrick, make this happen and help me out,” he pleaded. I felt like Wonder Woman – in baggy shorts and stained t-shirt – and sprang into action. Lumpy, Menopausal Woman to the rescue!

But men never fail to confuse me, and I have to admit I was baffled by his response. This girl was a verifiable hottie, and, knowing my pal as I do, if she and I were both in the bar of the Four Seasons Maui at the Afterglow after the Dine-Around event during some incentive trip, I know where he’d be parking his tailored suit. Not next to me – no one is looking for acerbic comments delivered by a woman whose feet are swelling up in these heels, dammit, and where’s that waiter with my Diet Coke? No, he’d be next to the purring babytalker, telling her how Mister Man would take care of everything for her, including getting her another Brandy Alexander.

And then I had a revelation of gobsmacking proportions – men can tell the difference. While they prefer the wounded sparrow, especially the big-breasted one, in any social situation, they don’t fall for that at work, or at least they don’t anymore.

That’s when I remembered Honey. This is the disguised name of the first babytalker-fatale I’d ever worked with, back when I was still hoeing and tilling in the cubicle farm. I’ll admit that I’d fallen for her too, at first, in a purely Jane-Russell-helping-Marilyn-Monroe sort of way. I’d been one of the people who interviewed her, and she was so lovely and sweet that I felt an overwhelming urge to smooth her path. I can’t imagine what the guys who interviewed were thinking, but I’m sure it wasn’t as pure as helping her learn how to sew her own clothes.

Honey made a big splash when she arrived on what we liked to call our “campus.” Since it was what was laughingly called “an open environment,” I was able to hear every word uttered by every owner of a “y” chromosome within a hundred feet, and those comments can be distilled into two words:  hubba. hubba. 

But, as the weeks passed and I got a chance to observe Honey in action, I noticed a definite chilling of the tropical heat wave she’d brought with her. Honey had a modus operandi for completing any work duty that she found too taxing.  She’d wait until about four p.m., then approach an unsuspecting male, wringing her hands, saying she just didn’t know how she’d be able to get it done. Prince Valiant would spring into action. She’d go home early, and he’d be stuck in his cube until seven, doing her work for her.

I’m not sure how many times she did this before each guy got wise, but eventually she’d worked her way through the entire office. Men who had once leaped up and checked their underarms for unsightly stains when they saw her approaching, now ran the other way. Finally one day, I overhead a conversation that I found utterly insightful into the male thought process. A new guy had started that week, and he was saying to a cube veteran, “Hey, how ‘bout that Honey? She’s beautiful!” And then the fellow, the one who’d been doing her dirty work for weeks, said the most amazing thing: “She’s not that pretty.”

Now I got it.  A pretty girl is a good girl. When someone was as manipulative and black-hearted as Honey had turned out to be, the only explanation was that she was not, in fact, beautiful.

Men, I thought. They get to the same place eventually; they just take a different road and take a lot longer to get there. Eventually, I’m supposing, they’ll get sick of the babytalk at the office and insist that it stay at the Gentlemen’s Clubs where it belongs. And perhaps the babytalkers will get the picture and go back to sounding, if not like Bea Arthur, at least a little more like grown women.

In the meantime, I predict that we’re going to be hearing a lot more breathy patter coming through on those conference calls, so brace yourselves, girls.

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