Pick Up The Phone

Need to find something out? The last thing you want to do is probably the first thing you should try.

I got my first 9-to–5 job last week, ending a decade and a half streak of self-employment. So for the first time, I am dealing with experiences that other people take for granted: Keeping a regular schedule, going to the same office every day, sitting in meetings, Microsoft Outlook… How do you people do it?

(Seriously, though. Other people can just put things on your calendar? You all realize that’s insane, right?)

One of these things is selecting an employer-provied health plan from an HR website (HR? Employee benefits?! OK, I take it back. You guys have been hoarding all the good stuff!). This choice is daunting under the best of circumstances and for an Overthinker presents a bottomless rathole of PDF booklets, comparison charts, and purgatorial “find a provider” search interfaces strewn willy-nilly with incomprehensible check boxes for things I never even considered I might need, interfaces which I am convinced were designed so that nobody goes the doctor ever.

Somewhere along the line I became a decrepit old man, and I’ve developed deep relationships with my doctors. And naturally I wanted to make sure they were covered by whichever plan I clicked. So like a good digital native, I Googled. I went to the plans’ websites. I drew and re-drew a constellation of dropdown and checkbox filters on the search interfaces. Ninety minutes later, I knew no more than I had when I started, and various algorithms were serving me ads for cholesterol meds.

So I picked up the phone and called each office. And I had the answers in ninety seconds.

Travel arrangements. Restaurant reservations. Parking information. We’ve become used to handling these ourselves online. Despite what they tell you, this change didn’t happen for our convenience; that’s not why large businesses invest billions of dollars in technology. They do it because they can shed many, many middle class jobs (jobs with benefits and a confounding processes for selecting them) from their workforce and replace them with an automated system, probably built by a self-employed contractor like I used to be, with higher costs up front but huge savings over time.

But all that work—the work that all the travel agents and receptionists and tour guides and airline customer service people making a middle-class living used to do—all that work still has to get done. And you know who does it? Time’s 2006 Person of the Year. You. Whole industries have sprung up around transferring the labor costs ancillary to the many services that you pay for onto your balance sheet. You don’t notice this because you don’t pay yourself a salary. (Unless, like me, you have ever billed hourly and come to realize that time management is a zero-sum game.) And honestly it’s not that big a marginal cost.

But it does add up, especially when you factor in the cognitive and emotional toll. Books like Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice have examined how choosing between too many options can overwhelm us into paralysis. And recent psychological research suggests that our capacity for executive function is finite; in essence, we get a certain cognitive budget each day, which we can spend on doing math or exercising willpower or dealing with a difficult relative, but when it’s gone it’s gone. (These findings have been challenged, but do a calculus problem and see if your hand doesn’t reach for a candy bar.) So if you’re stressing out over which airline to fly home for Thanksgiving, you might not have any reserves left to cope with actually seeing your family.

There are a number of potential objections to this, from the whiny and trivial to the very serious. But I want to address one in particular, one I find infuriating, which is that some people take pride in their ability to do unreasonable things.

I noticed this first during a conversation with a friend visiting from out of town. He was clearly in a bad mood. I asked what was the matter, and that was enough for all this to come tumbling out. “You would not believe the lady ahead of me in the TSA line at the airport. It took her three times through because she didn’t know all the things she had to take out or take off. I mean, when it’s me, I know the drill. I grab two bins and slap ’em down—boom, boom. Laptop into one, shoes are already off and go in the other, and my plastic bag of pre-dosed shampoo nestles snugly on top of my sweater.”

(My friend didn’t have TSA Pre-check. I do, but that could be a whole other blog post: “Pay us or we’ll make your life difficult” is the literal definition of extortion.)

I didn’t point it out at the time because my friend was manifestly pissed off and I would have gotten nowhere. But to a cooler head, I would have suggested that we zoom out a little bit and look at the system from a farther remove. And the system is pretty crappy. “Are you actually bragging,” I might have asked, “that you have mad skillz at the dehumanizing and questionably useful security theater at airports? Are you so brainwashed that you think it’s excellent to be excellent at unthinking compliance?”

So it is with your Google-fu. However skillfully you circumvent the terrible information architecture of restaurant websites to find the business’s hours (Why in the name of everything good do they not put the hours on the front page? Do they not want customers?!), however automatic the pattern of clicks or swipes has become as you deal with the broken website or app some utility or service or benefit administrator has the temerity tell you—with a straight face—is actually convenient for you, you, my friend, are in crazy-town.

So challenge yourself. Even if you are as averse to phone calls as I am, the next time you instinctively Google something on your phone, Google its phone number instead. Tap it, and and spend half a minute talking to a human, whose natural language processing and context awareness is better than the next fifty generations of Alexa. Whatever you’re looking to find out, there someone who knows the answer. It’s their job.

Photo: antcaz on Flickr

4 Comments on “Pick Up The Phone”

  1. An Inside Joke #

    I feel that in the past decade or two, our culture has increasingly become telephone-averse. I work in an office where I hold one of two administrative support jobs (one of three over the summer when we acquire an intern), and my other co-worker(s) and I regularly get into conversations about how we don’t mind responding to email inquiries, but answering the phone is like pure Hell. None of us has any diagnosed anxiety disorder, but we all agree that speaking with a live person on the phone is some form of torture that having an identical conversation of email is not.

    Likewise, I remember in college when I was a very late adopter of texting. I despised trying to have a conversation with someone when typing out a simple message like “How are you? I’m fine” on T9 would take the better part of 10 minutes. I’d frequently tell me friends that if they wanted to speak with me using the phone, my preferred method was phone call over text, and their response – from multiple people on multiple occasions – was that calling someone felt presumptuous and disruptive in a way texting did not.

    Texting came into vogue while I was in high school, so before that I was too young for calling someone “just to chat” to be a part of my life, but I’m inclined to wonder: has our culture always been telephone-call averse? Or is this something relatively new? Or is this specific to my friend group and not an overall trend? Because I’m inclined to think that if a significant part of the population views phone calls as anxiety-inducing, rude, or presumptive, it doesn’t matter how much quicker and easier a phone call can be if a 45-minute Google search carries less social stigma.


    • Kyle MacDonald #

      I would say most young people I’ve met feel the same about calling vs. texting. (I’m 22, and I don’t feel that way, but my upbringing involved what I later learned was an unusual amount of practice talking to strangers or distant family members on the phone. Somehow my parents knew what the future would be like?)

      However, it’s probably worth distinguishing between calling someone socially with no warning, which I would agree is now considered a disruptive thing to do only in near-emergencies, and calling someone at their job to ask them a question that it’s their job to answer.


      • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

        Yeah, my article really doesn’t address social phone calls at all. The issue, I think, is synchronous vs. asynchronous: For whatever reason, it’s a tall order these days to say, “I demand your attention right now.”


  2. Mark #

    Or maybe not… maybe the convoluted acrobatic moves we have to do on the web serves as a gameful escape from reality. Maybe the problem with the world is other people, and realizing this we’ve designed stupid bureaucratic and ludic mazes to navigate towards and normalize… which may be the true singularity–a point of total acquiescence?


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