Sunday, April 22, 2012

My funny fear of telephones

Being a journalist sets forth so many obstacles. In an average reporting assignment, I will be pushed out of my comfort zone no less than four to six times as I attempt to contact sources for quotes and commentary on any given topic.

On the rare occasion that I'm interested in a subject, I don't dread interviews. But more often than not I do.

There's something terribly frightening about going up to someone and being forced to carry a conversation with them without reciprocal interest. I've had this problem in daily life as well as professional life. When I sit down at a meal with people I'm not well-acquainted with and I have to make conversation, I tend to curl up into a ball and listen to my own inner musings rather than try and figure out how to engage them with questions.

But I'm training for a profession where I have to ask all the questions. So I've learned to cope.

Somehow, though, I still have a terrible, unconquerable fear of one stupid little device: the telephone.

The telephone was made to facilitate conversation and interaction across distances. It was not made as a torture method. Little did Alexander Graham Bell know that when he yelled to Watson to "come here," he was yelling to millions of others "run for your lives!"

Maybe he was just yelling it to me - and all my fellow journalism students.

There's something very frightening about a phone conversation. Maybe it's the constant threat of the unknown answer. Who is going to pick up? Will the connection be good enough that I can hear them? Will they even be willing to speak with me? What if the number is disconnected?

But chief among all concerns is the stupidest of all: Will I make a fool of myself?

Like in-person interviews, there is always the fear of flat-lining. Even starting off on a good note doesn't suggest an interview will go by without a hitch. In fact, it most often goes by with as many hitches as successes. I rarely get the answers I'm looking for and more often than not I forget what my questions were and end up riffing on some weird topic that has nothing to do with what I need for my story.

It's ridiculous, but it's how the process works. If it's an ideal situation, I'm able to consult my notes without incurring a 20-second long moment of awkwardness when the subject of my interview is staring at the top of my head as you pick out the next question to ask them. But no awkwardness is a rare pleasure.

Maybe it's irrational to fear the telephone. I mean, at least it offers the luxury of not having the obstacle of staring into someone's eyes as they talk. In fact, you're free to have your notes right in front of you and stare at them, or even type up responses and new questions along the way if you have access to a computer. So why am I complaining?

I think there's less liability with in-person conversations. You know that you have the person's undivided attention and there is a certain level of interaction that makes the situation seem more comfortable than when trying to pull someone's words out of a telephone.

One of my first interviews when I got to college was with the frontman of a band called OK Go. You've probably heard of them, but if you have not, just know that they're pretty (understatement) popular. I had wracked nerves to rival an Olympic competitor that day, not because my task was very difficult and defeat was a possibility, but because I believed that I wasn't good enough.

When I did conduct the interview, I had my interviewee on speaker phone, but the connection between us was so fuzzy that I could barely understand what he said. That, coupled with my nervousness, made the conversation one of the worst interviews of my life. His words were so garbled that I could barely understand enough of what he said to ask him further questions.

The night after the interview, I went back to my audio recording to transcribe. I had to type up the whole conversation for a Q&A that would be published online. The voice on the other side of the phone sounded like a teacher character from Peanuts. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa. No intelligible vocabulary.

I managed to squeeze a few interesting quotes out of the thing, enough to fill the Q&A and be true to his character without extrapolating what the stranger "wa-wa"s actually translated to. In the end it was all fine and I came out unscathed by the telephone.

But I still hate using it. And I think that's a testament to the very primitive nature of phone conversations. It's been many years since the telephone was invented, but phone conversations are still ridiculously unclear. Regardless of how many phone companies advertise as having crystal clear connections, there is little truth to the statement.

So aside from being an experience in which the lack of face-to-face interaction creates anxiety, telephones are an inconvenient way to record a whole conversation.

That being said, I still enjoy the fact that I talk to my dad at least twice a day via my phone. I love that I can contact someone at the drop of a hat should I need to find some quick information. And there's no doubt the telephone has done wonders for the restaurant take-out business.

Yet I still stand by the notion that using a phone to interact with someone is one of the least satisfying experiences as a journalist and as a human being. Something gets lost over the telephone and it's the most important thing: the feeling of being next to someone.

It's not the romance of closeness or the tension of closeness or anything like that, but simply the idea that when you are in conversation with someone you are experiencing their presence in a way that no other medium can provide - not Skype and definitely not a phone.

I hate phones, and as terrifying as interviewing is (or can be), it's better when you throw yourself completely into the game, rather than sit in your room staring at a computer while you hide behind your recorder and type away on your laptop. Give me in-person interaction any day.

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