The Telephone Choke

Like many introverts, I hate the phone. I'm also very bad at it.

Posted Nov 20, 2020

Taylor Grote/Unsplash
Source: Taylor Grote/Unsplash

We introverts mostly agree about the telephone. We don’t like it. While some people consider a ringing phone the music of delightful promise, for me it feels like an ambush and is more likely to provoke mild panic than delight. Here I am, quietly taking care of business when suddenly, shrilly, I’m being ordered to stop what I’m doing and provide attention to someone who wants it. Among other things, my mind does not turn on a dime like that.

The “Don’t Get Me Wrong” Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong, I do talk on the telephone. My friends know that the best way to get me into a phone chat is to schedule it with me. That way I don’t feel ambushed and can be prepared to give the conversation my full attention. I call it a “phone visit” and treat it like a real visit except I play Candy Crush while we talk. Believe it or not, that’s the best way for me to stay focused on the disembodied voice.

But the ambush quality of a phone call is not the whole problem, since I dislike making calls as much as getting them. I have to be very strict with myself when a phone call is necessary—sit myself down and get it done. 

I recently identified another reason for my phone aversion: I give bad phone calls. Terrible. I choke. I don’t know what to say. My thoughts scramble. My brain freezes, and my sentences disintegrate into disjointed words tumbling into incoherence. I even get flustered doing mundane phone tasks, like ordering takeout or making a doctor’s appointment.

This problem was confirmed for me recently, during my second and final attempt at phone banking. It was a get-out-the-vote initiative, a cause that is enormously important to me, so I decided to give it a shot, anticipating the job of calling strangers with the joy one might feel about a root canal.

Granted, most people don’t answer their phones when they don’t recognize the number, especially around election season. I certainly don’t. So I got a lot of nothing that afternoon (and was instructed by organizers not to leave a message). But on the few occasions people did answer, I fell to pieces. I stammered, I hummina-humminad, I laughed nervously. I had a script, which made me even more awkward, trying to make preliminary friendly chitchat (not among my talents) with people who didn't want to talk to me in the first place.

Honestly, if I’d been on the other end of the phone, my eyes would have been rolling. I could hear one woman’s eyes rolling at my nervous babble. “What can I help you with, ma’am?” she finally asked, with unconcealed impatience. I don’t blame her one little bit.

It can happen with friends, too. Especially if they call me out of the blue and I, uncharacteristically, pick up. I try, I really do, but getting my brain out of whatever I was doing and into conversation with a random person is like turning the Queen Mary. It requires a long, wide arc that I may or may not have the ability (or, admittedly, the will) to execute at the moment.

And occasionally I even choke in planned phone visits with friends. Perhaps I need to make a list of topics to bring to these, because I often can think of nothing to bring up. What about my life might other people find remotely interesting? I go blank. And even if a cohesive thought rises from the disorder, if a talkative friend is on the other end of the line (to use an anachronism), I have more trouble than usual interjecting because I can’t use visual cues. I have a hard enough time being an assertive conversationalist face to face. On the phone, I don’t have a chance.

(Do I prefer Zoom and FaceTime to the telephone? I need to think about that. Possibly, although I do get sick of looking at myself. How about you?)

I think I’m a perfectly good conversationalist face-to-face, and I certainly enjoy it, especially when it’s conversation versus chitchat. I don’t know why I lose it on the phone. That doesn’t mean I don’t talk on the phone, or won’t, or don’t enjoy it under any circumstances. It just means that you shouldn’t take offense if you call and I’m weird. It’s not you, it’s me.

Of course, it is a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Are my phone skills bad because I hate the phone, or do I hate the phone because my phone skills are bad?

Does it matter? Send me a text instead.