While taking an IQ test in grade school, I was stumped on a question assessing the ability to distinguish right from left. We were presented drawings of half of an object and required to answer if it was the left or right side. For example, a valentine heart torn in half, was it the right or left side that I was viewing?
Most drawings were pretty straightforward, but I stumbled on one (that I discovered many years later was a jacket lapel). As a farmgirl, I didn’t see men’s jackets very often. I had no idea what that drawing was. I stared at it, racking my brain as to what it could be. I finally decided that it was a poorly drawn calf’s rear leg…but the incomplete drawing didn’t make it clear if it was the right or left leg.
The man who created the test was probably a psychologist or psychometrician who regularly wore a suit, so a lapel was an obvious choice for him. Yet, rural students, girls, and people who lived in poverty, such as African Americans, would have been as perplexed as I was.
And that is what psychologists and educational test developers discovered in the late 1960s. They began to recognize that differences in IQ were not due to race, socioeconomic status, gender, or even age, but to cultural biases in the test questions. So, test developers began their search to create non-culturally biased IQ tests. And that opened an even more important door…the recognition that there were many different types of intelligence.
Intelligence or IQ assessments are based on academic-oriented skills that are needed the first 20 or so years of life. So, academic skills became the effective declaration of intelligence.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a gradual recognition of multiple types of intelligence, with arguably the most significant being the identification of Emotional Intelligence (called EQ) in the 1990s. Simply put, emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your emotions and the emotions of others. People with high EQs are extremely influential and do well in the “game of life.”
Today, educators and psychometricians recognize that there are many different types of intelligence, logical and mathematical abilities, mechanical skills, verbal skills, musical talents, and the list goes on and on.
I remember learning this lesson in the 1980s. My type of intelligence had been well rewarded with scholarships and grants. I had completed my PhD in psychology and statistics and was actively recruited by universities and research institutions including Bell Laboratories. You didn’t apply for jobs at Bell Laboratories, they found you. So I arrived at Bell Labs right after graduate school, handed a catalog to purchase equipment to build my own lab, given an assistant and told, just do whatever interests you. Pretty heady stuff for someone in her mid-twenties.
A couple of years into my career, the Communications Workers of America went on strike. That meant that most of us in the department, including secretaries, assistants, scientists, and management were farmed out to do “strike duty.” Which is why that summer, I found myself in Grand Rapids, Michigan working as a long distance operator.
We were given a few hours of training and placed in front of a complicated push-button console and told to keep the phone systems operating.
It was a large room, with heavily waxed linoleum floors and awash in bright fluorescent lights that produced a loud, low monotonous hum. Our equipment console was 5’ tall and 6’ long with an array of over 70 push buttons encased in a large steel grey metal housing. There were about 30 of us in the room, all staring at this complicated device. Not only were there many different buttons, but they had separate sequencing, and some had to be pressed simultaneously. Each button represented a connection to local switches, emergency services, international switches, and collect call payments. The console presented a daunting display of functions with illogical sequencing, and none of us ever got very good at it in the 6 weeks that we were assigned strike duty.
Each morning we would walk past the picketers and enter a large nondescript 7-story building. There were no altercations or angry words as both sides realized that we were simply pawns in other people’s chess game. We took the elevators to the 5th floor and sat at our assigned consoles, ready for the 12-hour onslaught of frustrated and angry customers.
It was brutal, and we frequently got it wrong. We made so many errors that the company eventually realized that they were losing huge amounts of money as long as we were in charge of putting calls through.
Also, we weren’t particularly serious. While we gave it our best shot, we knew that there would be no consequences for our behavior. Bored by the job and frustrated at our incompetence, we began to play pranks on each other, hit balloons into the air, anything to stop the monotony. Eventually, the frustrated and overwhelmed supervisor disappeared into her office.
Remember the days of calling the operator to make a prank call? Well, any child who called during the strike to ask us: “If we had Prince Albert in a can?” got a surprise. We decided to have fun and immediately called the kids back and asked to speak to their mothers. The kids hung up quickly and the calls brightened our day.
Not all was fun. I remember one older, irate caller who would call repeatedly and terrorize us. Claiming he was authorized (which meant that he was handicapped), he would berate the women operators while we tried to connect his call. He would scream, call us unrepeatable names, and demand to talk to the president about our stupidity. Flustered, we made even more errors. He called so many times during the day to scream at us that ultimately everyone was a recipient of one of his calls. Finally, one of the more courageous men in the office decided this had to stop. When the call hit his console, he informed the “gentleman” that his behavior would not be tolerated. A series of invectives followed, and our friend disconnected the “gentleman,” but kept the line open so that the “gentleman” could not make any calls. Our friend reconnected hourly to request an apology. When the insults followed, our friend disconnected leaving the line open. The “gentleman” never did get to make a call that day. (Of course, a real employee would NEVER be allowed to do that.)
And that is how the 6 weeks progressed, we unwittingly disconnected people, sent calls to the wrong state or country, missed payments, and continued our inept, but well-intentioned efforts. We grew weary of being away from home and working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Each day, the rumors of a purported agreement swirled around the cold, air-conditioned office and gave us hope that the next day would be our last.
Finally, the strike was settled. We were notified that on noon of the next day the workers would return to their positions. At noon, we promptly stood up from our console and our replacement slipped into our chairs.
The chaos that had saturated that room for 6 weeks disappeared, replaced by the smooth hum of calls and connections. The soundtrack of the room shifted from Stravinsky to Delibes’s Flower Duet. The supervisor emerged from her office.
I watched for 20 minutes as these women flawlessly operated the machines that had so confounded us; pleasantly spoke to their callers; and watched the call metrics on the board rise. I was awed at their quiet mastery of the console, the confident rhythm of their movements.
I walked silently and a little dazed out of the building. My freedom was at hand. I packed my suitcase and headed home.
And I never forgot how these workers who probably had only a high school education had given me an education on intelligence.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.