I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much I dislike phone calls. I don’t mind a quick call here or there (though I prefer a text message,) but any long call that involves important decision making or conversation I dread. I wasn’t sure if it was just me, or even why I felt that way. It seems like I’m not alone as D. Keith Robinson recently discussed a similar dislike and got a resounding response in the comments. Here’s what I’ve figured out:
- I love email and even text messaging.
- I love talking face to face.
For a long time, I dismissed my dislike of the phone as an affectation of my shyness. Why then do I like talking to people face to face? It would seem that that would make a shy person even shyer. The more I think about it, the more I realize there are two other factors that make me hate the phone.
Turn Based Communication
I think one of the biggest issues that arise when two humans communicate is the understanding and respect of whose turn it is to talk. It’s easy to talk with someone when it’s clear when they’re done speaking and it’s my turn. Then there aren’t interruptions, and the conversation goes back and forth, like a game of pong, without error.
With email, this concept of turn based conversation is taken to the extreme. Your turn isn’t up until you’ve finished a thought and hit send. When you get an email, you know it’s your turn to respond when you’re done reading. There’s no interrupting each other. Maybe this is why I love long email chains.
In a face to face conversation, you can use body language to signify you would like to add to the conversation. This lets the other person know they should pause, that you would like it to be your turn. It’s also much easier to graciously interrupt if you have something pressing to say or the other person is getting long winded.
On the phone there’s no way to tell if you or the other person wants to take their turn. Anyone who’s been on the phone with a salesman knows this. Salesmen love the phone because they can just ramble on and on and on (see Boiler Room.) As someone who was raised not to interrupt, this adds to the stress level since I don’t want to be rude but would like to put in my two cents.
Many people are verbose. I’m as guilty as the next guy for often going on, and on, and on. If someone sends you a long email, you can skim through it, omitting entire sections, to get to the heart of the matter. When you’re in person it’s much easier to be interested in what someone is saying—you can make eye contact, laugh, and more easily offer witty asides and quips. On the phone, I feel trapped. If the person I’m talking to launches into a long diatribe, I’m stuck, locked into my seat until the ride is over. This feeling leads to stress and anxiety, especially if I see a call coming in for a notorious rambler.
So it seems that my dislike for the phone isn’t based in some deep-seated social phobia, but rather in my need for structure in a conversation and a love of efficiency.