August 17, 2006

Phone Fears

It's funny how many people I know who are scared of the phone. I know people who screen all their calls. I know people who can make calls, but would prefer not to ever have to. I know people who hate talking on the phone, even to their close friends. When I was growing up I talked on the phone constantly. I would blithely explain that I just called to talk, and then proceed to chat for about two hours. Longer if possible. And I tend to be the one, in any group of friends, who is called upon to make the phone call to the pizza place or the movie theater because nobody else wants to. Sometimes it even comes down to "either I call, or there's no pizza," because nobody else is willing to. And yet, I'm totally scared of the phone. Actually, when I look back at all of this, it seems to me that I don't have a problem talking to my close friends on the phone... or to total strangers when we have a defined relationship and a sort of script to go by, like when I'm a customer calling to order food... the problem is when I'm calling a stranger with no script. Why is this? Why are so many people afraid to talk on the phone? I have worked out some glimmerings of why it's a problem for me. I think the big problem is that I can't see them. See, I can show up in an office to get information and be more than happy to talk to everyone there and be passed around like a wooden nickel. Somehow, the fact that I'm there and not being thrown out makes it feel valid. Maybe it's the fact that I have a role there, in my mind: the role of person-who-came-in-for-information. Not just a role, but one which in my head has a long and rich history, with many people having successfully done exactly what I'm doing. But on the phone, all of a sudden that image disappears. For all I know, nobody has ever called them for this kind of information before. For all I know, everyone else knows that what I'm asking or the way I'm going about it is entirely inappropriate, and they're ready to yell at me and hang up with a crash. That's a big part of it: when I'm on the phone, it brings up all my fears that there is a set of unwritten rules that everyone knows about except for me. Rules with harsh consequences. This is a common fear among abuse survivors of any kind, because that's what our childhood was like. Because the consequences were so out of proportion to what was happening, and because horrible things could happen at any time. We must have broken some rule we didn't know about, right? We'll believe anything to make it seem to make sense. But when I'm making a phone call to some stranger with some request that seems strange to me, I forget all of that. I can remember, if I think about it, that no matter how weird my request might seem they don't have the right to yell or call names or slam down the phone. And they probably won't. But when I have to call fifteen golf pros to ask them if they would like to take part in my study of EFT and golfing, that "gorilla switch" gets flipped. I try to defend myself in advance by imagining all the reasons they could be mean: I imagine that they'll think I'm trying to steal their business, that I'm interrupting their day, that I should be contacting them by letter, that they'll think I'm scamming them, that my idea is just stupid, and on and on. And the phone is dark. Sure, it's bright where I am. But when I envision the conversation I'm having on the phone, all I have is the person's voice, as if we're in a dark room. There's no feedback from facial expressions or body language. And dark rooms are scary. Anything could happen in there. So it seems a lot scarier than talking to them in person, even when that would be scary too. And it's too bad, because phones are so useful. Often, finding things out over the phone is a lot faster than online. And that's saying something, because I put a lot of faith in the internet. They're great ways to talk to people far away, and you get a lot more of them than when they are just words on a screen. Someday, someday soon, I'm going to be a phone whiz, and I'm going to just look my fears in the eye and laugh at them while I dial.

comment on this piece. (c) 2006 catherine h.