The Psychology of a Phone Call

The phone call: The process by which you pick up a phone, dial a phone number, wait two seconds for the call to connect, listen to the ringing sound that indicates that the other person is being made aware of your desire to communicate, and finally when the person picks up, you have a conversation.

Sounds pretty easy, you’d think?  All you need is a phone number, people to talk to, and a phone.  Billions of people across the globe communicate by telephone every minute – across neighborhoods, streets, towns, states, and even countries.

In order for a phone call to take place – you need people on both sides of the connection.  One to dial the phone number and one to answer the phone.  With the advent of Caller ID, you now know who is calling, it wasn’t just “Hello?” on the other side.  With the advent of Call Waiting, if you are on the phone with someone and somebody wanted to get through, you heard a short tone that indicated that somebody wanted to interrupt; you had the option of ignoring the incoming call or placing the current call on hold while you ‘dealt with the interruption’.

The phone call also requires more than just hardware, it requires motivation and desire, both of which are emotional states.  Motivation being the energy that drives you to complete tasks, no matter what the undertaking.  Desire is the feeling that you want to reach out to someone and communicate, even if just to say hi.

Aspies face a challenge when it comes to this type of communication.  In order to have the desire to contact someone, you have to be aware that the other person wants to be contacted, and have it be by you.  When you can’t read or feel that desire from the other party, it doesn’t give you a lot of motivation to want to contact them.

I recently posted this question on the ASA Facebook page.  I have also raised this question when I attend support group meetings (noting that they comprise mostly men) and the responses have been various:

  • Some state that they rarely place phone calls because they’re not sure if the other person wants to hear from them, due to lack of mindfulness.
  • Many have stated that they have a hard time reaching out even if they know that the person wants to hear from them.
  • It is a known fact that with online communication becoming more prevalent, the phone call is becoming a secondary form of communication.
  • I was at one support group and somebody had mentioned that they had gone to the point of scheduling phone calls and informing people that they would be calling them at a designated time.  Many Aspies need a sense of structure, so perhaps this is one solution – even though much of the neurotypical population doesn’t structure such calls unless there’s a reason.  The phrase “I’ll talk to you later” has become a filler way to end a conversation.
  • I have some friends that will text me and ask me if it is a good time to call.  I actually like that approach, since receiving the text gives me the flexibility to decide if I can or want to talk to them at that time, or if I have to or want to delay conversation for later.

One cannot speak about the psychology of the phone call unless they address voicemail.

As we all know, voicemail is the recording system that someone speaks into if they have a verbal message they want to leave (it’s been replaced by computer servers at this point).

There are many reasons for a phone call to get dumped to voicemail:

  • The person is at work and cannot pick up the phone.
  • The person is engaged in activities that prevent them from picking up the phone.
  • The person is ignoring a phone call.
  • The person is not near the phone when the phone rings.

Part of being mindful or being able to read people’s state’s of mind is being able to logically deduce hypothetically why the person neglected to answer their phone.

With the advent of cellphones, some of that gets easier.  If the phone rings a few times and goes to voicemail, it means that you’ve been dumped to voicemail by the other party – which can often prompt even more questions; people with anxiety can sometimes have an anxiety attack because they think they’ve done something wrong, when in reality, the person was talking to their boss.

If the phone call goes straight to voicemail, that typically means that the person’s phone is off or not picking up any service.  That can mean one of a number of things: (a) the person is asleep, (b) the person has no desire to talk to anyone, (c) battery is dead on their phone, (d) person is in a rural area where there is no cellphone reception.

Personally, I grew up in a family where the phone is to be answered when it rings, much like you’d see in a business.  It almost leaves the other person wondering why the phone wasn’t answered.  If someone is too slow to get to the phone, the question becomes “Who was it?” or “Why wasn’t that call answered?”.

The final point I will bring up during this entry, is the most important point when it comes to a phone call: Starting the conversation, something that Aspies often struggle with because small-talk is not one of our strengths.  It is something that we are capable of and we do learn from our society-at-large, but not something that we are very good at, since small-talk relies on speaking words that have no real value, whose main purpose is to start a conversation.

Sometimes people answer with a straight “Hello?”, other people will recognize the name on the Caller ID and respond with something more personalized.  Until people with AS get to know people personally, sometimes starting that conversation is difficult, due to the fact that we may not know what questions to ask and because conversation is usually gauged upon the back-and-forth responses, not all conversational pieces are easy.

When the other person finally picks up and greets you, for a micro-second you have their attention.  The big question becomes “What do I say or ask next?”  Some people identify themselves and ask how the other person is doing.  I guess neurotypicals call that ‘starting the conversation’ – I find it difficult to do that, since people often answer the “How?” question with some generic response, unless they are not ‘up to par’.  It’s considered rude to ask someone to qualify that they are actually feeling the way that they claim to be.

The toughest part, to my knowledge, is getting over that hurdle of the initial micro-second, long enough to have a conversation.  Realize also that most Aspies ahbor ‘small-talk’ and would rather ask productive questions and have a meaningful conversation.  For the most part, we have a good idea of how the other person is doing and what is happening in their lives, we just get ‘phone anxiety’ trying to figure out how to ‘get the ball rolling’.

Earlier, I mentioned structuring phone calls.  In the neurotypical world, the two people just pick up the phone and start chatting.  In the Aspie world, those same two people may not even know that the other person even wants to hear from them.  One of the more famous responses I get is “I did give you my number, didn’t I?

Welcome to another social cue that’s difficult to read.

To the literal Aspie mind, that can be very confusion or ambiguous, since our phone numbers are given to a preponderance of people every day:

  • Places of employment
  • Places of volunteer
  • When we sign up for loyalty cards, we give it because it’s requested.
  • When we sign up for services, the company needs a way to reach us.
  • If you order a pizza and ask for delivery, they may need the number to reach you in case they can’t find your location.
  • We disclose it on our tax returns.
  • When we ask a business for information and they have to call us back with the information.

Which leaves the ultimate question (and the end of the entry): How do you easily discern when someone is giving you their phone number, as a genuine cue, when-in-fact they give that same number out to the places I just listed?


2 thoughts on “The Psychology of a Phone Call

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