Tortoise Tuesday: Phone Calls as an Exercise in Orienting

I don’t think I know anyone who likes making phone calls — and no, ordering takeout or calling your parents at midnight do not count. Real phone calls are nasty little beasts. Think about it: you dial the number, and then the phone rings, and rings, and rings. You don’t know when the other person is going to pick up, or if they will at all. Then suddenly, when you least expect it, they do pick up and — you panic! What are you going to say? More to the point, how are you going to avoid starting in the middle of a thought, or missing something terribly important, or trying to say everything at once and winding up saying nothing at all.

Having a conversation in person is far easier than calling on the phone. When you’re standing face to face with someone, you don’t feel as bad when you have to start over twice before you are actually coherent. You can wave your hands vaguely in the air to clarify a particularly tricky point. You can even make pained faces to impress on the other person that you really are sorry that you sound out of breath and nearly incomprehensible. Or rather, while you can do all these things when you talk on the phone, they won’t make a bit of difference. All that matters on the phone is your voice, and what you say. In fact, since the connection is likely to wash away most of your inflections and any subtleties of your tone, you are left with just your words. The only way to avoid embarrassment is to speak more precisely than usual, but of course, that takes more thought than we would like, so we all put off that awkward telephone conversation with our great-aunt until tomorrow, or next week, or maybe when the school year ends in June — because after all, that’s the next time we’ll have enough energy for this kind of exertion.

Come to think of it, that horrible scramble for words at the beginning of a phone calls is not unlike the beginning of a paper. Here again, you have nothing bare words by which to convey your meaning. You desperately want to make a good impression, but your audience has a limited attention span, and no preexisting knowledge of what you are trying to say. Again, you must be unbearably precise. This is why the introductory paragraph, which should be the easiest to understand, is often the most difficult to write.

I tend to handle phone calls and introductions the same way. First, I put them off as long as I can. This sounds frivolous, but it is not entirely so, or at least, not in the case of introductions. In order to concisely prepare your audience for your argument, you have to understand your argument first. I often wait until the very end of the writing process, when I know exactly where I am going with my piece, to actually write the opening lines. The second step — the actual “writing” part — is the same for phone calls and introductions. I shut my eyes and think about how I would explain things to someone if I met them in person. Where would they narrow their eyes and look puzzled? Where would they become bored and start to glance over my shoulder out the window? The first time around, I know I will stumble over my words, but this is okay, too. The key is just not to have that first stumble happen when I actually answer the phone — or on a final draft. Precision is rarely achieved on the first try. Like much else, it is iterative, and can be improved with practice. After the fifth or sixth time, you are very likely to stumble as much as you did at first. After ten, you will be almost entirely coherent. After sixteen, you may even work up the nerve to pick up the phone and call your great-aunt, though perhaps not. After fifty honest attempts, I myself might still fail in that.

— Isabella Khan ’21