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Hold The Phone

The lost art of returning phone calls


Last Saturday morning, you could say I had a bit of a wake-up call. We sat eating Nova on Fairway bagels with a few weekend guests, our banter made a bit fuzzier by the previous night’s homemade sangria, courtesy of my sister, and icy margaritas from Jim’s son, courtesy of his new bartending license.

In between bites, my dear old friend Mark Wnek, advertising creative director extraordinaire, said, “I do not understand people who say they are too busy to take the time to return a phone call. How can anyone be too busy to pick up a phone?” Hmm. Was he reprimanding me, or was it that his complaint rang loud and clear because I’m one of those people he described?

I have often thought of myself as someone who is 24/7/365 in terms of response time—long before “24/7/365” existed—but his diagnosis, if it pertained to me, was indeed correct. I have telephobia. I am terrible at phone follow-up, and leaving me a voice mail can be an exercise in futility. Being too busy is not really my problem in terms of my lack of response; it’s just that I’ve moved on from more traditional communiqué and would probably be able to return an email or a text from almost anywhere, doing almost anything.

My challenge in this age of reality meets virtuality is not how to make sense of how to communicate but how to have others adapt to my (very public) lifestyle. By that, I mean that I achieved the corner office, then flipped its isolation the bird, instead opting to sit in a huge buzzy bullpen. I don’t use a driver to go to work; I take Metro-North because I like the lull of the train and its occupants. I don’t use my private home office, which is now a small living room, because I sit and work wherever I can get a computer and a cellphone signal. And since I’ve made a career of late in public relations of listening versus talking, real talk in my life became cheap and, along my way to the future, I realized that the sound of my own “voice” is more valuable today communicated in type.

So I am one of those people who gets a voice message and answers in 140 characters as a “long” text, seemingly too busy to respond, but actually just trapped in a new life-work paradigm that is quiet most of the time, just me and the (digital) crickets buzzing in my brain. Just as getting older takes away the ability to sport short skirts and eat pizza on a pitch at midnight with no consequences, I am no longer the sparkling conversationalist, the life of the party, or that effervescent Energizer Bunny who could keep going and going, talking a blue streak in some boîte in Amsterdam until the sun rose.

Despite being double-fisted in the smartphone department with my two BlackBerrys, I’ll be darned if I ever initiate a voice call if it can be avoided. Perhaps it’s the newest version of intimacy issues for those of us who prefer the company of our cloud-based lives to conversations on the telephone, which to me have begun to sound like the trombone-tinged wah-wah of Charlie Brown’s authority figures.

Voice started to make less sense to me back in the virtual office days of the mid-’90s. Suddenly, space was becoming less important (thanks to Jay Chiat), and I began disparaging people who had private spaces and who made lots of pomp and circumstance over an office. Mobility in those early days of the Internet became the precursor for life in the cloud. Sure, as a CEO, I can now reclaim a corner suite, but what in the world would I do with all those desks, chairs, formal couches and coffee tables riddled with old Starbucks cups when I could a sit on a settee, put my bare feet up on a steamer trunk and get to work?

When I’m fortunate enough to not be trotting the globe and answering a million texts, my home in Stamford can also feel appalling in its excess at 5,600 square feet. Thankfully, we will trade down in the fall. I will have a room of my own—small but well wired and with plenty of outlets for wherever I decide to park myself.

It will be a place free from human distraction, a concept that aligns me with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose 300th birthday is being celebrated this month. You might not think that at first read, in articles such as “First Theater, Then Facebook,” which appeared in The New York Times recently. Rousseau, who rued excess and championed a life filled with nature and man living in his or her natural habitat, shunned technology at all costs. Although Monsieur Rousseau lived in a time way before Facebook, when a tweet was something only a bird would do, he might have had a point. This article notes that Rousseau took great issue with the then very provocative theater because he found that it, in the words of the article’s authors, replaced “lived experience with vicarious experience and condemned participants to wander the sea of the non-present.” They added that Rousseau believed that staged works “distracted us from one another, and from ourselves.”

With social media making all the world a stage (yes, jumping to Shakespeare), it’s not really an argument to admit that the art of real conversation is going the way of the dinosaur. So I am really not that removed from what Rousseau was saying. In his quest to preach the gospel of nature for curing an addled soul, he found great comfort not just because of the awe-inspiring humility and beauty that being in nature provided, but also because of the solace it gave him, the ability to commune and connect with others and with himself, in a quiet place free of human distraction.

I suppose that’s what all of us in this highly connected paradox of a world we live in are seeking: a few moments of solitude within the craziness. So don’t be bothered when I don’t answer your phone call. I’m probably just looking for a power source or sending a text or thinking out loud in 140 characters or less.

Marian SalzmanMarian Salzman
CEO, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, North America and ER Life PR

Named one of the world’s top five trendspotters, Marian Salzman, CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, an entrepreneurial agency network now ranked ninth in the world, was PRWeek’s 2011 PR Professional of the Year, among other top honors. Before heading @erwwpr, she was CMO at Porter Novelli, CMO at JWT Worldwide and CSO at Euro RSCG Worldwide. Among her most famous consumer campaigns are the launch of the metrosexual to create a marketplace for SAB Miller’s Peroni, Pepsi’s “It’s Like This,” and “It’s America Online.” She co-founded Cyberdialogue—the world’s first online market research company—in 1992. (Marian was named to New York magazine’s first “Cyber 60” list, in 1995, the same year she was honored by Crain’s New York Business as a “40 Under 40”; the following year, Fast Company said she was keeper of one of the best job titles on the planet: Director, Department of the Future.) Marian resides in Stamford.

Twitter: @erwwpr

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