Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
May 2010 - Volume 10, No. 5
Telephone Vampire Etiquette
I am a guest in her home, but for awhile now, she is stuck with somebody on the phone. She looks at me with a helpless look, shrugs her shoulders, points to the phone, and silently mouths “I’m sorry.” She is captive to what I call a telephone vampire. Her helplessness begins to creep into my own psyche as well. My choices are (1) to feel sorry for her, empathizing with her helplessness, (2) to silently consider her rudeness to me as her guest, or (3) to seriously think about writing a newsletter article about what’s going on here.
We’ve all had this experience, conversation or social time interrupted by a telephone caller who just won’t let go.
Both the power and the weakness being played out on both sides of this electronic conduit is fascinating, at least to psychological folks like me. There’s a victim, a perpetrator, and myself the observer. What can the ‘victim’ do about it?
I. Strategies for the ‘Victim’ - some Keys to regain control.
(1) First, repeat after me, “I am not helpless here, I can do something about it.” Otherwise the illusion of helplessness is running the show.
To this I add two secondary keys:
(2) Consider the premise that the universe is orderly, or even better, that politeness will rule. No matter how well our mothers taught us to be polite and our fathers taught us to be logical, it doesn’t always work. People who also know how to be impolite and illogical will always trump the solely polite and logical. (Yes, I know it’s “not fair!”)
(3) Apparently there’s a rule against ever hurting anybody's feelings. And, of course, this is a hedge against someone hurting our feelings, or at least a memory of how it feels when others have hurt our own feelings. But if I know that you would never hurt my feelings, I can walk all over you. The tighter the rules, the lower your social power.
II. Levels of Interruptive Engagement
Now, I’ll spell out three levels, in increasing severity, to take hold of the situation for the purpose of ending the conversation.
Level I Polite Interruption
Level I A - Polite Interruption with apology and excuse.
“I’m sorry Sue, I’ve got company and need to go now. I’ll get back with you later.” We always want to add that second sentence, as if to soften any offense. But the truth is, it weakens the first sentence, and I suggest omitting it. This kind of listener actually won’t be offended.
Note that the excuse doesn’t even have to be honest, just useful to conclude the conversation. (Maybe there is no ‘company.’) But Sue may be a higher level of telephone vampire (TV). “Oh who’s there, someone I know?” She wants to hold on to the conversation, and may be very adept at taking anything you say as a ‘means’ to maintain the conversation. That’s why I use the ‘vampire’ illusion - once they’ve got their teeth into you, you’re theirs forever. So let’s up the ante from our side. Here’s the next level.
Level I B - Polite Interruption without an excuse.
“Sorry Sue, gotta go.” Don’t give a reason; you don’t have to justify what you’re doing. Trust your own reasons for wanting/needing to hang up.
Now you have two new choices here. One is to wait for her OK to hang up. Again, this gives her the power to hold on if she wishes, and if she’s a higher level TV, she will. “Oh wait just a minute, I just wanted to tell you about...”
Your second choice is to not wait for her agreement, “Sorry Sue, gotta go. Bye.” Then hang up.
Level II - Decisive Interruption (omitting politeness).
Politeness is a social courtesy. And in most situations, it’s appropriate and useful. But when it doesn’t work, you don’t have to use it! So let’s look at the options here.
Level II A - Waiting for a break to end the conversation.
You listen, no longer for the substance of the conversation, but for an opportunity to cut it off.
But there are those TVs who artfully don’t give you any opportunity. A simple example is the persistent pattern, “and.…and then....and then....and then....and then.…”
I’ve studied one male acquaintance who’s a master at this. He inserts into the end of a sentence or verbal paragraph a hook that already has you locked into his next words. Sometimes it’s a subtle jump in the frame of reference that sends you on an internal search, during which he jumps ahead, and you have no choice but to follow him. God only knows what perverse upbringing instilled this desperate holding on pattern. He has the power of a perverse hypnotist. If he would only use it for something other than his own ego.
Level II B - Cut off in mid-sentence.
At first this seems cruel. But it’s remarkably effective, and even with highly accomplished TVs, it seldom leaves hurt feelings. It’s as if they are unconsciously grateful for you finding a way to cut them off. (But never verbalize that to them.)
Be sure to aim for mid-sentence, or at least mid-paragraph. To wait for a break, leaves the TV in charge. But this way you’re in charge. Remember the key, “I am not helpless here, I can do something about it.”
Once you’ve interrupted (cut-off) the caller’s flow, you are in charge. [Hypnotists know how to use this skill.] Now grab that opportunity (do it fast!) and use one my previous suggestions to end the conversation.
Level II C - The Double cut-off.
This is the ultimate radical approach. Hang up in mid-sentence. It can be “Gotta go, bye [click]” or just hang up without any words at all. Again, mid-sentence is the effective key.
The caller may immediately call you back. If it’s a relationship you want to preserve, you answer the call, then revert to “polite,” (politely) indicating that you can’t talk now, and again hang up. Note that ‘polite’ here takes on a different function, it works well as a response to perceived offense. “Oh, I’m sorry...” In the cellphone era, we even claim it’s AT&T or Verizon’s fault. But still stick to your guns and release the hold of the TV.
III. Strategies for the guest (the observer).
In my case, I’m a guest of the TV victim. Do I just sit back politely (preparing this newsletter in my head)? When she mouths to me “I’m sorry” - I’m personally not one to scowl at her, increasing her discomfort. My natural inclination would be to shrug my shoulders, assuming my own helplessness as well - covertly accepting her helplessness.
The truth of the matter is that she is captive, and therefore so am I. I can’t de-captivate her, but I can de-captivate myself. Again,“I am not helpless here, I can do something about it.”
Since I have been left, I can symbolically leave. Perhaps I can walk around the house, go to the bathroom, pick up a book - something that doesn’t offend, but does represent my own freedom to disengage. And at a secondary level, I’m encouraging her to disengage as well.
There are always those around who want to cling in ways that drain (disempower) us. To wait for them to change can be like waiting for the sun to rise in the West. There are always better ways for us to use our time. “I am not helpless here, I can do something about it.”
IV. A quick note to the TV (the perpetrator).
I truly wish you had the ability to discern the discomfort of others instead of being so helplessly self-absorbed. But, alas, if that were true, I’d need to find another topic for this newsletter.
Remember, “I am not helpless here.….”
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