So call me maybe! ...hey wait, you mean I've got to SUSTAIN a CONVERSATION on this thing this is CRAZY
June 1, 2012 9:07 PM   Subscribe

How do you relearn the art/science/weird life skill of talking on the phone?

I'm one of The Youngs who grew up never talking to anyone on the phone in favor of IM/texting/in-person conversations. The only person I call on a regular basis is my mother, and even then most of the time they're 5-minute "nothing new here!" "Nothing new here either!" "...k, love you, bye" deals. It never seemed like an issue. I'd be fine just Gchatting everyone when I'm not hanging out and getting rid of my phone entirely.

That's changed. I've made a couple friends who prefer talking on the phone. I suppose if you measure by how long you stay on the phone with them it's not a total failure, but I feel like I'm flailing around trying to fill the silences and saying really inane stuff as a result, and I feel like my voice comes off badly and I stutter and just make things awkward. I don't know how you're supposed to make conversations flow when it's so weirdly distant and impersonal and you can't see the person, and the connection breaks up so you can barely hear them sometimes and ugh. This is a basic life skill and I feel like I missed out on whatever part of a girl's upbringing teaches you to have hour-long (or more!) phone conversations. We do see each other in person sometimes, but the rest of the time?

The weird thing is I've done a ton of phone interviews, and those go OK. It's when there's not a script that things go awry. Bonus weirdness: one of said people is someone I'm dating, which ups the stakes - as in, the fact that we're calling each other regularly is probably a good thing unless it's awkward.

Is there a secret to this? Or is it just inherently weird for everyone?
posted by dekathelon to Human Relations (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
For most people, it's inherently similar to talking to them in person. It's not a different skill, per se, it's just... not feeling weird about their lack of proximity to you.
posted by fatbird at 9:24 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I find it really unpleasant and disorienting to talk on the phone. I'm pretty introverted, but in person I can at least fake garrulousness (mostly by tossing out interesting trivia bits or talking about the most recent pop-sci book I've read and then babbling about the interesting implications if I get an interested expression.) I'm absolutely rubbish at small talk.

Phones, though, you don't have feedback or body language, and it's just really really hard to maintain any kind of reasonable flow of conversation. The only person I've ever been able to talk with at length via phone, I married, and since then we've both avoided the phone as much as possible because she hates it as much as I do.

So I can't really help with any tips to get better, but I can at least assure you that you're not alone in finding it weird.
posted by Scattercat at 9:24 PM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

The main problem with talking on the phone when you don't have anything specific to say is the absence of body language, so it can be hard to tell attitude, or even when the other person is about to speak.

Other than that it is just practice practice practice.
posted by edgeways at 9:27 PM on June 1, 2012

As a short-attention span person, my secret for talking on the phone is: close your eyes.
posted by nicwolff at 9:37 PM on June 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

Would the person you're dating be open to replacing the phone with skype? It's not text-based, so he might prefer that to chatting/texting, but you'd get the real-time visual feedback.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:44 PM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is better with analog phones. If you have a landline, use it. With a cell, you miss all the breaths, grunts, body movements, etc., that let you know what's going on.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:50 PM on June 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

Is there a secret to this? Or is it just inherently weird for everyone?

One secret is that landline sound quality was so incredibly clear compared to cell phones (which keep getting worse.)

The intimacy of texting comes from the anywhere-anytime-in-someone's-pocket immediacy. The intimacy of phone conversations was almost physical, though, you could hear so much more nuance in tone of voice, breathing, etc. and conversation is in real time and unedited, unlike writing a letter. (To close the comparison loop, I would say that writing an email has now come to occupy a similar position as the letter-writing that it replaced.)

Maybe it would help to think of situations in which you tend more toward having longer conversations with these people in person, the kind of conversations where you're passing the time and enjoying their company and just talking about whatever's on your mind. Road trips, maybe, or dinner dates? Think of your phone time as being a sort of virtual version of that.
posted by desuetude at 9:51 PM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

It's awful and I hate it so goddamn much. If people insist on talking to me on the phone (god knows why when they have gchat, ugh why why) then I just let them ramble as long as they want while making appropriate murmurs of agreement or astonishment or what have you. Luckily, most phone-insisters are also usually ramblers.
posted by elizardbits at 11:29 PM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I hate it and am bad at it too and I actually grew up before cellphones and skype and email, so did a lot of phone calls with friends and family in my teenage years. But I STILL hated it.

I don't think it's just practice. I think there is some personality type/preference thing about it too.

For me, the weird thing is the length of the interaction. I don't talk much in person either. I have/had friends who thought less than an hour in a phone call is rude and curt, and I find that difficult because I also wouldn't talk to them for an hour non-stop in real life.

I realise that isn't a great deal of help, but maybe you should start thinking about whether these friends are really people who are similar enough to you that a relationship with them will work well in the long term.
posted by lollusc at 11:40 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is the secret you're missing:
"Uh huh... Uh huh... Oh really?! ... Oh, wow. ... I know! ... Uh huh... That's what I was just thinking! ... Uh huh... Oh, like she's never done that! So then what?... Uh huh... Uh huh... Of course! So what did he do?..."

Talking on the phone involves a lot of verbal cues that communicate "I'm still with you, go on." I had my phone muted today accidentally, and without that, pauses got awkward. I don't think this is as common either in-person or in chat/text. See if a little "uh huh" helps.
posted by salvia at 12:08 AM on June 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding salvia on the verbal cues. They are key. One can say much without saying anything at all.

Silences are crucial. They are themselves verbal cues. And, lets face it, some people just don't like jibberjabbering at each other for an hour, non stop, without pause. It's good to have a moment to reflect on what's happening in the conversation and gather thoughts. Some are better than others, granted, but there shouldn't be an expectation to fill a void with blathering along the lines of "welp, nothing new here!"

Phone conversation (like all conversation) takes practice. (Seconding edgeways.) I guess I was lucky enough to go through my formative years spending hours upon hours on the phone with girls I was interested with in high school. I've also been lucky enough to practice verbal communication on a daily basis at work, and fortunate to have (older) friends who truly appreciate a good skype call. Now, the urge to abstract communication into text -- well, put plainly, it sucks. There are so many nuances that can't be conveyed with creative typing, wordsmithing, use of errant smilies. ;)

The long and the short of what I'm trying to say is -- keep at it, and keep practicing. I don't think there's any sort of mystery here, but you're simply out of practice. (Which isn't something you should beat yourself up over!)
posted by peeet at 12:39 AM on June 2, 2012

It is better with analog phones. If you have a landline, use it. With a cell, you miss all the breaths, grunts, body movements, etc., that let you know what's going on.

I agree with this. Plus, there is practically zero latency on landlines. One of the things that I find terribly uncomfortable about chatting on the phone is when there is a delay.

(I think this is almost universal, except for the narcissistic assholes that pull the phone away from their ear and shout into it. 'Cause they aren't listening anyway.)

Another thing I've noticed is that the latency is greater when going cell to landline. Or cheap-voip to cell. So if your phone partner is on a cell phone, try using your cell instead.
posted by gjc at 5:33 AM on June 2, 2012

The thing that sucks about phone conversations is when you run out of things to say, but the chatter just keeps wanting to talk or hang out on the line. This is why I despise "just to say hi" calls (and daily long distance relationship calls were hard for that reason too) and was totally fine when working as a reporter: I had things to say and said them and then could get off the phone, without having to kill another hour of conversation.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:59 AM on June 2, 2012

I have a friend who is a child psychologist and she sometimes practices phone skills with her clients. Maybe you can get someone to practice with you.
posted by bananafish at 7:53 AM on June 2, 2012

Best answer: I'm as old as the hills, and grew up talking on the phone for HOURS with my friends. (Right after coming home from school, where I'd just been with them. But anyway.) But I hate phones with a passion now, and can only talk on them for any length of time with maybe three people. Reasons for this I think are:

1. Those three people are the ones I've spent the most time talking to face to face. It's easier to have a conversation where you can't see the other person if you have thousands of hours of experience talking to them in person already.

2. It's so true what others have said about land lines. I'd never go back to having one at home, but a two land line connection is so much clearer, there was never that awkward delay or static.

3. Life provides more silly, phone-suitable conversation topics when you're 8 than when you're grown up. Talking freely about what just happened at school today, when you totally weren't allowed to talk at recess, is more of an immediate need - with less to ponder and less potential for silence - than what you want to talk about now.

So, I guess my answer is, no you're not alone in finding phones weird, and maybe your phone abilities will improve as your in-person conversations continue. Oh, and if you like the more scripted conversations, perhaps it would help if you made a list of things to talk about and referred to it when on the phone?
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:14 AM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's sad to me reading so many land-line comments here, in the past tense -- because I'm an older guy who loves talking on the phone -- on analog phones, that is. I detest almost everything about the cell phone except its convenience, a huge problem being the lack of sonic fidelity -- you can't hear enough to have a decent conversation!
posted by Rash at 9:33 AM on June 2, 2012

Best answer: I find that one of the problems is that when you run out of stuff to say, how to get off the line? Here are some helpful things:

1. I'm going to let you go. This implies that the person calling you is doing you a huge favor and that you don't want to impose on their time anymore. It's very polite, and southern and perfect.

2. I've got nothing. This is what I say to my family or Husbunny when traveling. This one is good when you've got an established relationship. It takes all the pressure off of you to create any conversation because, as you've stated, you've got nothing to report. If the other person wants to keep talking, it's on them, but they're on notice, you have nothing to contribute and you're kind of antsy to get off the phone.

3. I'd love to keep talking, but I've got to run. This is for people like me, who sometimes don't get the hint. Use this if your show is about to come on, a pot is boiling over, you have to pee, or in a situation where you're done and just want to pet your kitties.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:53 AM on June 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

I second the advice to close your eyes. I find it helps me deal with the fact that there's no body language to examine, no lips to read, no expressions to watch if I trick my mind into thinking those are still happening and allow myself to imagine what they're doing. It doesn't make it fantastic awesome super fun times, but it makes it tolerable.

As for how to have more fulfilling conversations? Have them less. It sounds weird, but I find if I spend too much time talking to people, we can run out of things to talk about. There's no way I'd be able to sustain multiple hour conversations at a frequency greater than once a month.
posted by buteo at 10:55 AM on June 2, 2012

Do what you'd do when you have an interview: Make a list of things to talk about. What have you done recently that the other person might not know about? What things do they have in progress that you can ask about? Make a list, and treat it like a conversation with the purpose of checking in, only with the appropriate conversational cues as mentioned above to show that you're listening and interested. Laugh, sigh, say "Mm-hmm," ask follow-up questions where appropriate. Treat it just like an interview.

I always used to have long phone conversations as a teen and in college, so I got a lot of practice that way, but what really made me get better was doing phone interviews and placing orders by phone for work. I still vastly prefer written communication, and I'm pleased that we're moving toward that being more the norm, but yeah, a lot of skills from using the phone for work translate quite well to personal conversation.
posted by limeonaire at 1:47 PM on June 2, 2012

Wow, I feel so vindicated by this thread-- cell phone sound quality is TERRIBLE, and it's so frustrating to me, because I love phone conversations but they're impossible when you can barely make out what the other person is saying. I actually fear for my relationship when it becomes long distance this month because if we primarily communicate by cell phone it's going to be like not talking at all. Talking on a cell phone is a waste of time. Even people I feel comfortable being like, "what? WHAT??" with, the conversation sucks.

So, yeah, analog(?) phones. Or Skype. Or get a cell phone with really really good sound fidelity. Vocal cues are totally important (it's interesting because yeah, it's an active skill-- you're actively making the other person feel heard and comfortable). But most important, sound quality. With my last boyfriend, we primarily communicated by phone when I was at at school, except he used his landline, and our relationship got 10x stronger. It's actually very intimacy-building and affirming to just have voices sometimes.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:13 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a person who was telephone-ia-phobic also before the sms, I just wanted to affirm that written/compact/collapsed time brain mode of texting is super different from verbal/voice only/what-the-hell-is-going-on awkward silence of phoning.

Like limeonaire suggests, I cope by trying to have clear objectives for any conversations, not just interviews. Like, "Set up time for Saturday," or "Tell X about superfunthing Y," and, besides responding to whatever randomness my convo. partner brings to the table, and spontaneous erruptions of inspired positive emotions, make the phone more a vehicle for setting up in person contacts if the pre-pubescent girls' gift of doing anything and everything on the phone doesn't come easy.

Also, when I am feeling the schmoopy I try to channel some of it into little gifts like cookies for next time we meet or hand drawn hearts-and-unicorn cards and stuff. Maybe not so immediately gratifying as texting, but tokens that will accrue much more interest over time.

(P.S. It's also okay just to say you are feeling awkward! they are your friends!)
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 4:17 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

My ex used to call me every night before he went to bed, and the first few times, I HATED that. I just felt awkward and didn't know what to say, so I mostly let him ramble on or start new conversation threads. I guess I thought I needed to say substantial or interesting things, but I realized that's just impossible for every single phone conversation. Soon, I learned to just say whatever popped in my head, even if it was "Man, I'm so hungry." That could easily spin off into what we had to eat that day, what restaurants we wanted to try, etc. Sometimes I also took to browsing the internet or watching TV while on the phone, and that would actually give me conversation fodder like, "You won't believe what a real housewife just did!" Not that he enjoyed *those* types of conversations, but hey, if he's gonna call, he'll have to listen to whatever I have to say...
posted by shipsthatburn at 11:30 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Piggyback question, what's the next best thing in sound quality to a landline?
posted by desuetude at 10:26 AM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks - glad to know I'm not the only one. It's really weird - like I said, interviews are fine, and with family it's fine (because we have to talk on the phone or not talk at all, and because if I say "hey, I don't feel like talking" I know no one will get offended), but with anyone else, it just goes to hell, fast.

The landline thing is interesting. If only I knew anyone anymore who had one.
posted by dekathelon at 4:44 PM on June 3, 2012

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