Question 176 (The Book of Questions by Gregory Stock)
Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say?
I’m not such a big fan of the telephone. I don’t mind ringing up friends and family for a chat, but I definitely get anxious when it’s time to dial up anyone else. I procrastinate, my hands sweat, my stomach churns. So yes, I rehearse…and I make notes. Then I pray that if I’ve rehearsed a voicemail message, the party I’m calling won’t pick up, or if I’m expecting to speak to a live person that a machine doesn’t ask me to leave a message.
Part of this anxiety comes from two phone calls that went horribly wrong while I was in college. The first occurred freshman year, when I shut myself in the phone booth and placed a call to AT&T to get myself a calling card (this was back in the old days, when no one had cell phones, and there were two pay phones on each floor of the dorm for long distance calls–I couldn’t save enough quarters to do laundry and call my parents each week). The AT&T customer service rep asked me for several pieces of information in order to process the application for the card. The first thing that tripped me up was my current phone number. I misspoke the digits, which made me all flustered, and it took about three tries to finally get it right. Then when he asked for details about who they should contact to get their money should I fail to pay the monthly bill, things totally fell apart. My parents had recently moved, and I had not memorized the new address. So I asked the rep to hold the line while I ran back down the hall to my room to retrieve my address book. I returned to the phone booth huffing and puffing, and opened to the page where Mom and Dad’s address should have been…only to find it was still the old one. So I stammered some sort of apology to the rep, sprinted back down the hall once more, and returned with my ultra-organized roommate’s address book, in which she had penned my parents’ new address in her impeccable handwriting. I sounded like such a complete and total idiot that I was sure my request for a calling card would be summarily denied.
I made the second disastrous call in the fall of the following year, during the college’s annual phone-a-thon fundraising campaign. One of the requirements to maintain my scholarship from year to year was donating a certain number of hours to the campaign, manning a phone and cold-calling alumni to solicit donations–streaking naked from one end of the campus to the other would have been only slightly more terrifying. The opening gambit of these calls was scripted, then it was up to us to either continue reading from the variety of scenarios and dialogues contained in the script or to ad-lib. After a couple hours of calls, I was finally able to pick up the receiver and dial without feeling nauseous–and then I called the number from my list and asked for Alumni X. The female voice on the other end said, rather unhelpfully, that Alumni X was not available. I followed the script and asked when would be a better time to reach him. “Never! He’s dead!” That scenario was NOT in my script!! I couldn’t have been more shocked, and shrilly started apologizing and offering condolences, drawing the attention of all the other phone-a-thon volunteers. Nothing worse than committing a grievous faux pas in front of a full audience, and I hung up crying, shaking, and completely mortified. The experience was so horrible that I seriously considered not going back to work the phones the following year, but decided another terrible phone call would be preferable to the wrath of my parents if I defaulted on the terms of my scholarship.
These days, if I am forced to make a phone call (thanks to the internet, I can avoid many), I run through a dozen different conversations in my head first. I make a list of questions I want to ask, and information I might need to give, so that I have something to fall back on if my mind goes blank at a critical moment. In all honesty, the worry and preparation are rarely necessary. With so many businesses and organizations moving to automated phone systems, nowadays the most daunting part of the call is listening for which number to press in order to proceed in English.