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How to Deal with Negative Conversations

The Tyranny of the Telephone


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		  The Tyranny of the Telephone  

 I'm waiting for an old friend at a breakfast cafe, studying the menu.  It's been months since we got together.  Finally, in he strolls, big as life, a few minutes late and full of high-fives.   

Then his cell-phone rings.  He answers, slips into the booth, and begins a 10-minute conversation. I roll my eyes, but to no avail. Once again the tyranny of the telephone has worked its wicked will.   

Eventually my friend completes his call and turns his attention to me and the menu. I scold him for the rudeness.  Soon after, his cellphone rings again, and this time I insist:  "Turn the damned thing off." He does, reluctantly.   

Nearly 2,400 years ago, Aristotle suggested the notion that a tool could be used for good or ill. "It depends."  A knife can cut vegetables or stab someone.  A telephone can help people connect and communicate, or it can be a weapon that intrudes, insults, and distances.  "It depends."   

To a considerable extent, we on the first year-steps of the new millenium have become pawns of our own technology.  We spend way too much time at the TV and computer screens.  Generally, we are too acquiescent with telephones and beepers.  For example:   

 It's family dinner time, and the salesperson or nonprofit solicitor phones.  (This is the preferred time for many such groups.)  Puppets to their phones, most people will answer instead of letting a message machine or a mute button handle the call.   

 You get a message from your child's "class mom," who requests urgently that you call her back ASAP.  You call and call, but her line is always busy because she is going down the list of 25 families, phoning one after the other with no break.   

 An acquaintance calls while you're in a meeting and launches into a rambling, detailed story without asking "Is this a good time to talk?"  Finally, you have to interrupt him so that you can attend to your waiting people.   

 You phone a family friend and are talking when the friend says, "Excuse me, I've got an incoming call" and leaves you stranded for five minutes.  You feel pushed out of the way, as if someone has cut into a line ahead of you.    

 You're watching an quietly intense scene of a movie in the theater.   In the row behind you, a beeper sounds off, destroying the mood of the moment.  The perpetrator mutters a lame apology, but your experience has already been spoiled.   

Recognizing that it's already dangerous out on our crowded highways and streets, you get even more nervous when drivers, their attention split and steering unconsciously, careen in and out of traffic while engaging in heated cellphone conversations.   

Days go by before you get a call back in regard to your truly urgent message.  The other party just "didn't get around to it," and "had been meaning to get back to you."  You're concerned because you couldn't reach the person to discuss the board decision, and they insist on being upset because the decision was then made without their vote.   

What to do?  Defensively, set up some procedures that work for you, such as "no incoming calls during family dinner time". With your own outgoing calls, mindfulness, common courtesy and applying the Golden Rule will help you eliminate those behaviors that are intrusive or distancing.   


Loren Ekroth 2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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