Sunday, January 14, 2018

Still Life with Robin: Don't Pick Up the Phone

Photo by X570
Public Domain (Creative Commons)
by Peggy Robin

So far I am doing fairly well at following my simple New Year’s resolution this year: Stop Picking Up the Phone. Why even make a resolution like that? Robocalls. Live phone solicitors. People who claim to be Microsoft tech support. Or the IRS. Or duct cleaning companies (well, they probably are, but I don’t do business with random strangers). I am, of course, on the Do No Call registry and have been since Day One. And I used to have Nomorobo but I gave it up out of concerns that it could be blocking calls that I actually did want to receive.

Just by coincidence (as I had been planning to post this since January 1st), the Washington Post has tackled this subject in an article in today’s Sunday Magazine explaining why there are more junk phone calls than ever, and why measures to block them have not really done the trick. I recommend it highly: But I’m not here to tell you about the technical challenge of blocking spam/scam calls. My object is to convey the emotional challenge of overcoming a lifetime of Pavlovian conditioning. When a phone rings, you pick up if you can. That’s how I was raised in the pre-answering machine era. Now, in this post-answering machine age, in the time of voice-mail-in-the-cloud, I am finally, slowly, and painfully re-training myself not to respond. I look at the caller ID and if I don’t recognize the number or don’t see a familiar name displayed….I must grit teeth and resist the urge to lift up the receiver of my land line. (Yes, I still have a land line…not sure why.) It's just the same for my cell phone. I must restrain myself from touching the green answer key.

The hard part is, when I see a 202 number on the caller ID screen followed by what I know to be a common prefix -- like 363 or 966. Once upon a time 363 meant Emerson-3, a neighborhood exchange. If I’m not mistaken (and I could be – it’s been so long), 966 was WOodley-6. Those prefixes were from before the time of ANC (All Number Calling). The scammers have found a way to display a someone’s legitimate local calling number, whose owner has no idea the number’s been spoofed and repurposed for fraudulent use; the call recipient may be tricked into thinking it’s a call from a neighbor whose number is unfamiliar but who could well be someone with a good reason to be calling.

That’s the sort of thing that flashes through my mind as I see a local number on the caller ID. As I’m about to reach for the phone, now I stop myself and recite three times: Do NOT Pick UP! Meanwhile every atom in my hand is itching to do so. It’s like I’m fighting an instinctual urge. All I know is, when the phone rings, you answer, you talk to whoever is there. Alexander Graham Bell is calling out to me from the Great Beyond: PICK UP, dammit, someone is waiting! It may even be someone making an expensive LONG DISTANCE call. Or even more compelling, some sort of emergency, and the unknown number could be from a hospital somewhere, someone trying to tell me something awful has happened. Or maybe something wonderful – it’s the Lottery Board just trying to make sure I collect the Mega-Millions I’ve won. It may take me a few seconds for my brain to dredge up the fact that hospital names DO show up on caller IDs these days. And to recall that the last time I actually bought a lottery ticket was….2011?  

A few more weeks of telling myself these calming truths, and I should be getting the hang of the non-answer response to the ring-ring stimulus. I supposed there may always be that little twinge somewhere in the back of my brain as a result of decades of imprinted behavior. But I am improving. This resolution has legs! At least, I’m doing better with it than I did with resolutions in years past, to cut out all junk food and say no to rich desserts! All those firmly made resolves were off the table by February 1. So call your heart out, scammers, and I will continue to practice the Zen of the Non-Answer.

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland ParkListserv on Saturdays or Sundays, depending on my procrastination level.

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