Ken’s View: Phone Home

By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

Hold on to your hats. You know, that headgear I told you was making a comeback last month. There’s something even bigger in the comeback pipeline—phone booths.

A Finnish company that calls itself the Framery says it’s true. The company claims it made 2,800 phone booths in 2016 and expects to manufacture 8,000 this year. Microsoft is said to be a big customer, replacing a third of its traditional phone rooms with the booths in its Seattle headquarters.

Why? According to a recent study, 53% of office employees say ambient noise reduces their satisfaction and productivity. Only 18% of them say their management has taken steps to solve the noise issues.

Noise issues may be the least of the problem, however. It seems that some people are afraid to talk on the phone—which would explain all that thumb typing. Really. Psychologists call it phone anxiety. A 2011 study by the Pew Research Group found that the average cell-phone user made or received something on the order of 12 calls per day. In 2015, another research group pegged it at half of that.

Again, why? Because people are afraid to sound dumb over the phone. Far better to make a fool of oneself in 140 characters or less, I suppose.

The other half of the problem is exactly that—half. Officemates in an open office are forced to hear only one side of a conversation. And half of a conversation can really sound dumb. As a consequence, it might be even more distracting than hearing the full conversation. Halfalogues, some research claims, are more distracting that regular old dialogues.

Another downside is the feeling that you’re being judged by your officemates in an open office. Here’s a shock. You are being judged, if my experience is any indication. I’d like to deny it, but I’ve been guilty of thinking the end of the conversation I was hearing was awkward, failed to address unheard objections, or was just plain pointless.

Not that I put myself on a plane above my office compatriots. I interview lots of people by phone, and I record those interviews. Transcribing them is sometimes painful because I can’t escape the reality that I, too, sound like an idiot. Still, some interviewees say they’ve enjoyed our conversations. I don’t know, perhaps they’re just being polite.

Theorists say that people avoid phone conversation because they just don’t know the rules. Well, yes, there are certain conventions that govern phone conversations. Just as there are conventions that govern emails or tweets or whatever. Back in olden times, we were taught the rules of composing a proper business letter, for example. And there were conventions on how to structure a simple invoice and request for payment. Most of those rules, it seems, have been forgotten.

That said, I’ve often found a brief phone conversation to be more satisfying than frustrating, back-and-forth emails. Astonishingly, some people still speak quite well, thank you. So pick up the phone and talk to someone—preferably from inside a phone booth. It’s not as scary as you think.

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