The telephone company has a new TV commercial touting the virtues of Caller-ID. You know, it's the ad claiming that the "phone is once again your friend."
Yeah, sure. And so's the Internal Revenue Service.
Let's face it. Despite all its alleged conveniences, the telephone remains the principal enemy of productivity in the workplace and of a peaceful supper in the home. So, exasperation being as much a mother of invention as necessity, I've chosen to act. As I'll explain below, I have all but abandoned use of the telephone in both my business and personal life as a civilized means of communicating. Right now, it's just one man's experiment, but who knows -- maybe it will become a movement.
I've long suspected that, had Mr. Bell not invented the telephone, someone like Stephen King would have. It's the sort of fiendish device he would set loose to terrorize one of those stolid Maine villages where the baker who turns out those heavenly chocolate donuts is finally revealed (usually around page 850) as the proprietor of Beelzebub's charcuterie. Were Dante around today, his vision of hell would divided not into circles but into a voice-mail menu. "To speak with Virgil, press one..."
Most calls fall into one of two categories: the ones you make and the intrusive, inconsiderate and generally pointless ones others make to you. One guy I knew apparently felt obliged to call me at least two or three times a week to assure himself he was still alive.
"How are things?" he'd ask.
"Fine, how about you?"
"Oh nothing, same old, same old."
Answering the phone at dinner time has become like tuning into PBS. More often than not, the next voice you hear will be someone trying to wheedle money out of you.
Preposterously enough, many of these pleading phone calls greet us with a recording advising us to "hold for an important message." What's astonishing is that this gambit must work. Somewhere people must be standing there in the kitchen, stirring the pasta sauce, waiting for what they have to know will be a vacuous sales pitch. After all, the recording did not say: "Please hold for Mr. Koppel."
Are these folks so starved for human contact they look forward to a chat with someone sitting in some telephone boiler-room located in a dismal office park on the outskirts of Des Moines? Are there folks so well-bred they will not even hang up even on a machine? Or is a subliminal message being broadcast that only a chosen few can hear? Are aliens, the undead or the Republican National Committee beaming a secret signal to someone else at your dinner table? So, in the end, we're back to Stephen King.
But dinner-time annoyance can't match the occasion for humiliation known as Call Waiting. It's always irritating to have the other party interrupt your conversation with "Let me check to see who this is." So you sit there fiddling with the phone cord, wondering where you stand in the pecking order. Worse, if you're on your cell phone in a restaurant with a table full of colleagues or clients, what do you do to maintain the pretext that you've not just been dissed? And what do you do when the other person comes back on the line to tell you she's just got to take the other call? That's the dreaded double diss.
Fans of intrigue and deception can appreciate Call Forwarding. One afternoon last summer I was out kayaking with a friend on Lake Natoma. Suddenly, I hear a phone ringing, and my friend is pulling out her cell phone. "Shush! Stop paddling," she says. "I'm supposed to be in my office." It was the third caller who tumbled to what was up: "Anne, you're not working out by your swimming pool, are you?"
Over the years, I tried a number of ways of rebuffing the telephone's demands. Some days I would just unplug it. Many were the days when I would just let the answering machine screen calls. But, of course, I'd have to stop whatever I was doing whenever it rang simply because I couldn't resist the pleasures of eavesdropping on myself.
In the end, what I did was as simple as a vow of silence. I dropped my business telephone service, delisted my residential number, and stopped giving out my new telephone number to all but next of kin. I now communicate almost entirely via email or by posting messages on my website. If a telephone conversation is absolutely necessary, it can be scheduled just as a meeting is. And as with a meeting, the call should have a preset agenda.
By cutting interruptions to nearly zero, my new communications policy has led to a much quieter environment in which productivity thrives (and afternoon naps become a real possibility). It has also eliminated a number of problems, not the least of which is listening to people stammering through a verbal marsh of "ers," "ahs", and "you knows" before getting to the point.
Besides, email offers several major advantages over the telephone call. Both are efforts to gain someone else's attention. But email, unlike the jangling phone, knows how to say "excuse me" and then wait quietly in line. Those of us who are less spontaneous than others relish the opportunity to mull things over before replying. And for anyone who routinely communicates with people in other time zones or on other continents, it means you don't have to get up at four in the morning to phone that colleague in Uzbekistan.
The downside? Sure, there's always the chance a prospective client might be unable to reach me. But in all my years of consulting, every client has come my way via colleagues or friends who know how to reach me. Anyone else can simply type my name into any internet search engine. It should fetch up my website, which lists both a postal and an email address but not a telephone number.
Still, I've one big concern. And that's that one of these days I'll get a postcard from Paris reading: "Mon Cher, I was in San Francisco last weekend and tried calling but alas couldn't find your telephone number. I was so lonely, dining alone in my hotel room. Love, Catherine D."
[Editor's note. For the benefit of the aforementioned Ms. Deneuve, Mr. O'Connell's email address is TheClarkStreetGroup@email.com. He is an international business consultant in Davis.]