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The overwhelming awkwardness of the phone call

Can we all agree that talking on the phone is the worst?

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By Amy Van Veen (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: March 20, 2013

Can we all agree that talking on the phone is the worst?

I wonder if Alexander Graham Bell—or whoever actually invented the telephone and didn’t just steal the patent—would have appreciated a phone call if he knew that years later, letter writing could be sped up to the lightning speed of a text message.

A phone call has too much suspense. Too much uncertainty. Too much je ne sais quoi because I don’t actually know what is on the other end of the line.

The only problem is that the phone call is still the preferred and necessary means of communication for cutting out all the subtext and questions that arise from the confusion over poorly-worded texts and emails.

Ideally, everyone would talk face-to-face and all the missed nuances of tone of voice mixed with body language and facial expression could clear up a lot of unwanted miscommunications, but unfortunately we don’t all live in the same cul-de-sac. (Actually, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It would be a little crowded, constantly seeing your dentist, doctor and telemarketer selling credit cards and getting their mail.)

So the next step away from this almost perfect understanding is the telephone, but for me the telephone is wrought with so many more problems than a simple text message.

First of all, there’s the small talk. That horrid small talk that everyone charades their way through to get to the real point of the phone call. If you just want someone to pick up a coffee for you, you have to first ask them about their day, share lamentations over the changing weather patterns, waste a few more precious daytime minutes with some forced laughter before eventually saying, “Hey, do you think you could pick me up a coffee on your way to the office?”

Secondly, there are the many awkward pauses that come from the novice phone callers calling on the phone. Awkward pauses are fine face-to-face because much can be said with a raised eyebrow or a huff of breath. But awkward phone pauses? They eat away at you until you spurt out something just to fill the space. This is especially evident in those phone conversations you have with someone who wasn’t the intended recipient of the phone call, like when you call a landline to talk to your friend and her husband picks up and the two of you have to share pleasantries while waiting for her to come to the line. Personal phone calls would be better with hold music, but I suppose that might be a little rude.

And thirdly, these two problems combine to create the ultimate downside of the telephone call: the distracted “uh-huh.” Let’s face it, when one person gets talking about something or decides to answer truthfully your polite “how’s your day going,” it takes a while for the two of you to come to the intended subject of the phone call. But while the person on the other end rattles away, punctuated by small talk and awkward pauses, your mind wanders. It either wanders to an outstanding to-do list or the doodle that has formed under the power of an idle pen. It wanders away and you don’t even realize it until the person on the other end asks if you agree. It’s like Ross and Rachel and the 18-page letter all over again.

Do you agree?

Uh huh, phone calls are the worst.

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