The Chokehold of Calendars
Mike Monteiro
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“I really really need to get back to work now…”

The Tyranny of the Telephone

Today’s “get off my lawn” dogwhistle is “How about a phone call?”

I am not a socially awkward curmudgeon, I have good business reasons for not wanting to have yet another phone call to discuss a potential project.

I freelance. Part of freelancing often involves the “good fit” discussion before signing contracts. Clients can make sure that paying me money is going to be a worthwhile investment for them. I can make sure that the job is something I’d do for the money they’re paying. I would do these meetings in person if I lived in the same timezone as many of my clients. I would do them on Slack if I had that level of charismatic authority to get people to try new software. For some reason the meetings must be real-time, synchronous and on the phone. Not Skype. Not Google Hangout.

Even for a good fit and good money job, these meetings are the worst.

  1. The thirty to sixty minutes I am spending talking on the phone is time I am not actually doing my work. Phone calls are less fun than my actual creative work. I want to wrap them up.
  2. The thirty to sixty minutes they are talking to me is their regular job time, so they are already at work. I gather that these phone calls are more fun than their other work. They have no incentive to make them shorter.
  3. There’s always an email after the meeting which sums up the meeting and puts things in writing. This email is usually five sentences long. I want to cut right to the five sentence email.

I muddle through these phone calls because that’s where work comes from. As much as I’d like to be Neal Stephenson fancy and tell people “my time and attention are spoken for — several times over. Please do not ask for them.” I like working and this is the hurdle to getting work in my industry. The emails and texts to plan these discussions can sometimes take as long as the actual phone calls.

15 emails to plan this phone call.

After these discussions, there are emailed documents that need to be scanned and faxed, or signed and mailed. I don’t mind the trip to the library or the post office to complete these transactions, but it’s more time I’m not spending in my work space, thinking about my work. New media gives you online contracts that you can sign digitally. Old media faxes stuff, just like the Librarian of Congress. New media bills by the hour. Old media is on salary.

The calls usually are a way for people to tell me about their organization’s mission (which I read on their website) or to explain to me the scope of the project (which will need to be re-sent in an email) or to negotiate fees (which must be nailed down in a hard copy contract and usually floated by other people in management before they’re finalized) or to chitchat about the weather in Vermont. Occasionally they are openings for me to make a pitch for what I’d like to do and then be told that they’d like me to do something completely different, something not in my wheelhouse, something they should probably have gotten someone else to do. And then we talk about who else could maybe do that.

I get that “but the light is better over here…” feeling from these interactions. I’m empathetic concerning many things, but I do not know what exactly these discussions are for. They’re not a part of my process, creative or otherwise, and they keep me from my actual work. They seem to involve cultivating social capital that I don’t want or need.

I do public speaking, I give workshops, I write articles, editorials and books. Listening to me talk on the phone will not give you a very good idea of how I am in front of an audience. Our talk will not allow you to gauge how well my writing will affect your readers. Talking to me for twenty minutes will not give you an indication about how I am with deadlines or whether I can write to spec. The things that I want most out of a meeting — concrete ideas about deliverables, timeframes and money — are sidelined so that I can receive gossip about the interpersonal squabbles that define the organization or get a description of the person who I’ll actually be working with if I take the project. These things are more important for the person to tell me than for me to hear. And that has value at some level, but does it have value to me?

I think people want to hear a voice saying “I will do the thing.” While I have no problem giving and keeping my word where work is concerned, what I want is a piece of paper saying “Here is our agreement about the thing.”

Sophisticated low-to-no-cost tools have been created that facilitate significantly more knowledge transfer, collocation of resources and time-and-space coordination than a phone call allows. I am often being contacted specifically because I have advanced technological expertise relative to the audience that I am being asked to share it with. And yet the fact that these contacts frequently take place over the phone is itself a bellwether, an indicator that someone in a position of power prioritizes their own technological comfort zone over effective and efficient dialogue. I hear them saying “We want to hear about how to do things differently” via a medium that says “We don’t want to actually do things differently.”

People have varying ways of defining success in their fields. I will feel successful once I feel comfortable saying no thank you to “How about a phone call?”.