How's your telephone manner? Are your movements and facial expressions consistent with your remarks? Or would they get you into trouble if your phone had a video attachment?
The other day I walked into the office and found my supervisor holding the receiver at arm's length. Having all but memorized the caller's chronic complaint, Annette was silently mouthing his thundering words and mimicking him with ferocious expressions, much to the delight of three colleagues. When the tirade abated, Annette promised sweetly to look into the matter and hung up, grinning. A potentially bruising encounter had been turned into harmless entertainment.
As an immediate outlet for telephone-induced tension or anger, there is nothing like a good pantomime or a furious doodle. In my office the right to remain invisible while dealing with an often hostile world is held sacred. It is also indispensable to good health. Force us to modify our unspoken language to match our polite voices and the resultant strain would take its toll in ulcers, migraines, absenteeism, even careers.
There is only one person in our bureaucratic beehive who stands to lose nothing. With the phone to his ear, he's as inscrutable as a sphinx. I once transferred two calls to him in quick succession -- one from his mellifluous girlfriend and the other from his shrill wife -- and he made the transition without batting an eye. Perhaps it's no coincidence that he leads the office in sick calls.
Reggie, on the other hand, hasn't missed a day in three years. A copious doodler, Reggie speaks softly but wields a devastating pen while on the phone. As a management representative who handles many a delicate matter with fire-and-brimstone labor leaders, Reggie comes across the wires as a consummate diplomat and long-suffering listener. A darker side, however, is suggested by the memo pads he fills during conversations. When an irate caller held him in thrall for 20 minutes the other morning, Reggie murmured placating expressions like "I see" and "I understand."
Meanwhile he leisurely sketched a minutely-detailed gallows complete with the unmistakable caricature of his caller in the noose.
But the one who has the most to lose is Harvey who neither doodles nor mimicks callers. Harvey is a bundle of nerves. When a Congressman called recently, Harvey turned ashen, excused himself for a minute, and took a deep breath before returning to the phone. Although he managed to keep his voice from wavering, Harvey hunched forward at his desk, shoulders pinched as if he were caught in an icy wind. There were deep creases in his forehead; he gripped the receiver so hard his kunckles turned white.
Had the Congressman been able to see the torture he was inflicting, he no doubt would have hung up mercifully. Obviously, such mercy would not do much for Harvey's career.
Indeed, the video telephone would not do much for anyone's career. For all of its innocent appeal, it is a monstrous device; probably the work of an evil genius. It is a step forward for technology, but a leap backward for mankind. If we allow it to achieve widespread use, it will only pave the way for more monstrous devices. Eventually not even the darkest corridors of our minds will be inaccessible to the casual caller.
If you think it's a strain in a face-to-face encounter to nod with enthusiasm when you are more inclined to roll your eyes in exasperation, just wait until even your thoughts have to be presentable.