I could talk to someone face to face for hours, but talking on the phone with that same person would fill me with crippling anxiety. I rarely answer the phone. When I do, I have to take a deep breath before picking up and pretend I’m someone else to get through the experience. This might have to do with the fact that I’ve been burned so many times over the phone.
Just last week I got tricked into answering the phone, because the number on the caller ID was so similar to my sister’s cell phone number. As soon as I answered, I realized I’d made a mistake. When I heard the person on the other end ask for Dr. Colin X, I knew it was our graduate school making yet another one of their endless fundraising appeals. In my politest voice I said, “I’m sorry, he’s not here right now. May I take…” Before I could complete the sentence, I heard a click and then the hang up tone on the other end!
This is not the first, or even the second time I’ve been hung up on by someone who called ME in the first place. On one occasion, a complete stranger called me up when I was a grad student in New York City. I picked up the phone and he introduced himself and launched into his life story. Entirely unprompted, he described the color of his eyes and hair and gave me his body measurements. He told me he was trying to break into modeling. He had just moved to New York from California and he was feeling lonely and wanted to meet people. I was fascinated by this bizarre modus operandi.
“So…you’re trying to meet people by calling random numbers in the phone book?” I asked.
“Uh-huh!” he replied with no hesitation or embarrassment at all.
I thought I was being kind and doing him a favor by suggesting that he try one of those chat lines that were always being advertised in the Village Voice. He got really huffy, told me I was rude, and hung up on me.
On another occasion, a salesman called and performed the usual preemptive maneuver of speaking in whole paragraphs, thereby preventing me from saying “I’m sorry, I’m not interested” or “Please, stop, I’d rather drive a fork through my temple than buy aluminum siding from you.” I guess what normal people do is to just hang up. I, on the other hand, listened to the whole song and dance as an act of charity. When he finally came up for air and said “So let’s go ahead and schedule your free estimate,” I was able to say at last, “Oh, thank you so much for taking the time to let me know about your fascinating product, but I really don’t need any aluminum siding right now.” At this juncture, I was thinking that if not the Nobel Peace Prize, well then some kind of humanitarian award was definitely coming my way. After all, I had just endured the longest, most tedious ten minutes of my life and had very sweetly refrained from slamming the phone in the poor schlub’s ear. Imagine my surprise, when he became enraged and screamed, “Well then why did you let me go on talking for so long?” And yes, he slammed the phone in my ear.
From now on, I’m going to channel my mother, who always deals with unwelcome solicitations with real panache. Although English is her second language, my mother speaks the language beautifully. When she picks up the phone and suddenly switches into broken English, we know there’s a telemarketer on the other end. “Sorry. Sorry. No speak English,” she says with an exaggerated accent. She even waves her hand back and forth as if they could somehow see this gesture. She always manages to hang up the phone on her terms and with a giant smirk on her face. What I really appreciate is how she’s able to turn these situations into a sort of performance art. Once, some very persistent Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking on our door. No sooner had they plied my mother with free issues of the Watchtower, than she ran to get her own Bible. “Let me tell you what I believe!” she began, waving the book joyfully, wildly in their faces as she started spouting an impromptu sermon. In no time at all, they were propelling themselves away as fast as their legs could carry them, stealing fearful glances over their shoulders as they ran.