Secretarial: The Temp - Wot, no phone calls?

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IT'S A strange thing, but nobody seems to have personal phone calls these days. When I first started work in the school holidays, personal phone calls seemed to be what most people did for a living: calls to husbands, calls to girlfriends, calls to electrical suppliers to check the prices of microwaves. Calls about what happened last night; calls about what's likely to happen tonight; calls about birthdays, lunch, trains; calls to the gas board; calls to BT about cut-off home phones; calls to book tables. The big news story was about firms putting call bars on 0891 numbers after employees had run up thousands of pounds getting young women to help them with their pocket massage technique (I found a book called Pocket Massage for Stress Relief in someone's bathroom the other day, and it's become my favourite euphemism, along with Lewinsky).

But over the past four or five years, the interest level in offices has gone down. Time was when you'd have endless things to think about: the affair to your left, the divorce to your right, the nursing home fees directly behind you. Now, it's nothing but e-mail: the rattle of keys and the occasional cackle. E-mail brings a whole new dimension to time- wasting: employees fill entire days composing lists of things the sexes really mean when they say something else, forwarding them to mates, then discussing them ad nauseam.

My friend Tony is an IT bod, so he knows exactly what's going on on the Net in his building. If ever there were a reason for going into IT, besides the massive salary and the capacity to torture less educated souls, this would be it. Tony and his colleagues long since got bored with netsurfing, having done it since the age of eight; now all they do in the dull bits is quietly trawl what everyone else is getting up to.

"It's great, e-mail," he says. "People turn into demons - saying things they'd never say to people's faces." "Like?" "Well, one of our managing directors is deep in a sado-masochistic fantasy world with the company secretary. Yesterday, he asked her if she'd drop into the pet shop and pick up a couple of hamsters on the way to the hotel." "No!" "No, honestly. I think it's because they're talking, essentially, to their computers. It completely robs them of their inhibitions. I think they imagine that e-mail is somehow unhackable. God knows why. Everything else is hackable.

"There are 15 affairs going on in our building, on screen at least, and we've only got 90 people working here. There's a girl in accounts who's had presents from three different men in the past month. Two engineers have a sweepstake going about their chances of scoring with every woman in the company. They've given them all marks out of 10 for availability, and not one of them is below a six. At first I thought they had actually managed it, because there's this constant flow of messages saying things like "when I got the head of accounts in the stationery cupboard" and "had the chairman's PA over his desk on Thursday", but eventually I realised that it was all just fantasy."

And that's the problem: e-mail, it seems, is almost entirely fantasy. If you're talking over the ether, you can be the wit, the stud, the raving beauty, the thrusting businessman you always wanted to be. No longer do people have to face the fact that their only suitor has a moustache like Genghis Khan and a voice like Ken Livingstone; on screen he's Arnie Schwarzenegger.

And everyone can pose as that guy who wins arguments. Sometimes I look around me, and I can tell who's having a row by the crashing of keys and the crazed use of the mouse as thoughts that would have come out five minutes too late in reality make their way to the top of the screen as though they'd dropped first from the brain. And meanwhile, as we enter the age of digital shopping, digital banking, digital party rooms, our real social skills atrophy and die. If we're not careful, we'll soon be inadequates with grossly inflated opinions of our own value as raconteurs. A nation of anoraks. And then no one will want to go to parties any more.

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