Anxiety over making an important phone call to a total stranger
February 23, 2018 2:55 PM   Subscribe

I've located descendants of someone I'm researching. My professor and others are encouraging me to call them, but I've been super anxious about doing it. This is an important call, and I've never made one like this. I have a few practical questions that would make me feel more confident.

I'm studying a particular event involving black men in the 19th century. I have found a ton of information about one person in particular, and I've located living descendants. I would very much like to share my information with them, and to learn what they know about this person. I'm very shy about talking on the phone, but it's very important to me that I make an effort to connect with these people.

My professor has already given me some practical advice about making the call (identify myself, explain my research and that I believe they're related to this person), but I don't think they're as shy about this sort of thing as I am. I would appreciate getting advice on this from more people, if only for the sake of hearing about how different people approach this sort of thing.

I've made tons of phone calls for this project, which has been great for phone anxiety, but until now they've all been to professionals or public-facing individuals. This is a different situation, because these people are under no obligation to speak with me, listen to me, or help me in any way. I am claiming to have some kind of extensive knowledge about their family history, and as much as I want to share that with them, the offer feels weirdly personal and, er, a little weird in general.

How can I think about this in a way that will make it less intimidating?

How should I identify myself in a way that won't sound like a scam? How can I open the call in a way that will get them interested?

What time of day should I call? What day of the week? I don't want to piss someone off by calling in the middle of dinner, or while they're stuck at work.

How can I prepare ahead of time so I don't find myself stumbling with nothing to say?

I know I'm overthinking this, but this call is important to me, and I'm hoping it could be important to them, too. I've been trying to imagine how I'd feel if someone called me out of the blue claiming to have a lot of information about my family, and there's nothing I can think of that wouldn't make me raise an eyebrow. But I know people do make this sort of connection. How?

Have you ever had to make a call like this, or at all similar to this? How did you handle it?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Human Relations (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have always been phone-phobic and my job requires constant calls to strangers. I have two things that really help me, one is to slow down, like, really slow down. People will wait for you to talk and you are less likely to veer off into prattle land and it gives them a chance to talk. A dialogue is easier than a speech. The second is to pretend you are being paid $100 a minute to stay on the phone, this counteracts the drive to just be done and hang up. Spend some time thinking about what you want to say or ask and then just pick up the damn receiver and dial.
posted by InkaLomax at 3:03 PM on February 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I make a lot of phone calls of this sort and they're always anxiety-inducing!

The best advice I can give is to breathe and speak slowly and calmly. Don't blaze through your introduction (speed-wise), but still keep it short and sweet -- save major details on your exact project for later in the conversation but give an outline and the reason why you'd like to talk to them. Tell them that it must be odd to be getting a call from a stranger, but that you appreciate their taking the time to talk with you.

Hope that helps! But really, the best practice for me has been to notice my tone when I talk with friends and maintain that same friendly and casual demeanor.
posted by Cwell at 3:05 PM on February 23, 2018

I’d much prefer to get an email asking me for a call or meeting than a call about this kind of thing. I spend a good chunk of every day in back to back calls/meetings. I also work late and I have no interest in talking to cold callers and that would include you. If you send me an email I can read it in my own time, I can check you out if I want to and decide if I want to talk to you or not as the case may be. And if your project peaks my interest there is a good chance that I will find time to talk to you. If you insist on cold calling me on this I’d either refuse to talk to you or ask you for an email with some background and contact information.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:09 PM on February 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

I would start by doing a quick summary of what's going on to give them context without feeling like they're listening to a telemarketing spiel.
"Hi, I'm a [history][grad] student who's been researching James Smith's [event] in the 1870's. My professor had suggested I contact Jeff Smith to see if they're a descendant of that James Smith. Is this Jeff Smith?"
(if yes, tell them what you're offering and what you want) "Fantastic! My name is John Johnson, I work with Professor Jackson at State University. We've learned some really interesting things about [event] and I thought you'd be interested in hearing about it - and honestly I'd love to hear anything more that your family knows about James if you're willing to share.
(now set up how you want that to happen)
I know you don't get family history phone calls out of the blue every day, is now a good time to talk for about [10] minutes?
(consider, Jeff may have heard some stories but he might need to call his cousin to be reminded of the details, and it's probably in your best interest if he does, right?)
And at this point you're basically having a normal friendly phone conversation.

But given that the first segment of the phone call is setting up who you are, who you hope they are, whether they're free to talk, etc, I'd agree that email (or even paper mail) would be the best way to introduce this, even if your goal is to have a phone conversation. Send the info describing the project and what you want (a conversation) and they have the opportunity to email you back, but in your note you say you're going to give them a call - so when you turn up on the phone they will have heard of you.
posted by aimedwander at 3:16 PM on February 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would probably go ahead and first send a letter (on some sort of official stationery) identifying myself and explaining the project. That way your call will not seem quite so out of the blue and may have more legitimacy in their eyes.
posted by praemunire at 3:18 PM on February 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh my god, I hope it's me! I would be so thrilled!

What would make it more reassuring is if you had specific details about the line - like, "Hi, I am researching Jeff Smith, father of Jane Smith, in Philadelphia, with the line moving to Milwaukee in the 1950s, and believe you may be a descendant. Do you have some time to talk?"

The specific details would make me feel it was less scammy and more cool.
posted by corb at 3:33 PM on February 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also, what I mean by my first sentence is hopefully less creepy and more "you can absolutely make someone's day by this kind of thing, so that's a good way to think about it."
posted by corb at 3:33 PM on February 23, 2018

I’d much prefer to get an email asking me for a call or meeting than a call about this kind of thing.

Unfortunately, I don't have anyone's email address. I found several people my age (30s) on Facebook, but I don't actually know how to contact them online (I don't have FB anymore, and even if I did, they filter messages from total strangers; someone important to my dad tried to contact him, and he didn't get the message for a year). I wish I had their email addresses, but they all have common enough names that I can't google them.

I have publicly-available phone numbers and addresses for a few people in their 50s-70s (confirmed by a local historical society that knows of them, but doesn't know them personally). Those are the people I'm going to call. I was going to send a letter on university letterhead, but my professor said that in her experience, you're more likely to reach them by phone, especially people that age.

I'm basically banking on them being thrilled to hear about family history. My biggest fear is that they'll turn out to be gruff, unfriendly people who want me to mind my own business.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:49 PM on February 23, 2018

Also open with specifics of your affiliation; ‘Hi, I’m working on research about [ancestor/names] for [university], working on a famous event back in [year].”
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:01 PM on February 23, 2018

I was going to send a letter on university letterhead, but my professor said that in her experience, you're more likely to reach them by phone, especially people that age.

I am you! I also have a research project that has involved contacting living relatives of the people I've researched. It's been a learning experience, because what I've discovered is that not everyone is as excited about this story as I am, and people tend to freak out when you contact them out of the blue to tell them something about their ancestors. (Most do, anyway. A couple have been intrigued, but they're the exceptions. Or maybe I've been doing it all wrong.)

If I were you, I'd send a letter first and then follow up with a phone call a week later. This will give them both background information and the time to absorb it. It will also perhaps make you less nervous on the phone, because you won't have to explain your project from the very beginning -- they'll already know why you're calling. It will also legitimize you. Scammers don't usually take the trouble of introducing themselves ahead of time.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:07 PM on February 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

My biggest fear is that they'll turn out to be gruff, unfriendly people who want me to mind my own business.

This is a really good insight. If that happens, it will be confronting and disappointing but it will be over in moments and you will have your answer to that line of research. Your distress will pass and you will cope, a little stronger probably from facing a big fear and seeing it through.

Take some deep breathes before you call. Good luck.
posted by Thella at 4:09 PM on February 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Enlist a friend or two to help you rehearse. Telephone them and walk through your planned talking points (slowly, as mentioned above). Ask them to decide ahead of time what "mood" they'll be in (friendly, distracted, wary, etc.) and stay with that, to help you feel more comfortable having a conversation when the feedback you're getting is different.
posted by Lexica at 4:09 PM on February 23, 2018

I would be much more likely to talk to someone if I got a letter first. I’m in your target age range, and I get so many scam phone calls, I assume cold callers are scammers until proven otherwise. And I never pick up if my phone doesn’t identify the caller unless I’m expecting a call, though I do listen to voice mail messages.
posted by FencingGal at 5:30 PM on February 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

If you have home phone numbers, I would call in early evening, introduce myself as a scholar/esearcher and explain the situation as concisely as possible. Offer to send an email or letter that gives more information in greater detail. I call total strangers (many POC] pretty often and I try to make the first contact short, sweet and non-sales sounding. In my experience, POC in the US are often interested in geneaology, etc. and happy to help, once they understand you’re not trying to sell them something or get them to sign a petition.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:48 PM on February 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

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