Nearly person on earth has some kind of phobia; a fear of closed spaces, spiders, or heights. I, for one, am afraid of heights. My knees get rubbery whenever I’m standing at the edge of a ledge or balcony more than three stories above the ground. That doesn’t explain how I was able to jump from perfectly sound airplanes for nearly 20 years in the army, but phobias often defy explanation.
I have one phobia, though, that’s even harder to explain than my fear of heights – I freeze up and become almost unintelligible whenever I have to talk on the phone. And, if there’s an answering machine or some other kind of mechanical voice (like a phone tree that asks you to punch in numbers to indicate your choices) I turn into a gibbering idiot. Now, this is not your normal fear of public speaking. I can talk to crowds of any size, and, other than the opening jitters which are just a signal that you’re doing something new or strange, and help to focus your mind (it does help me to focus), I have no problem. I once addressed a crowd of nearly two thousand Cham Muslims in a village in Cambodia, and I even managed to get over a couple of jokes that they understood and appreciated. Same thing goes for talking on the radio or being on TV. Once the prompter indicates my mike is open, or the red light starts shining on the camera, I go on auto pilot.
But, when I dial a phone and one of those mechanical voices answers, my brain goes into seizures. I forget my name sometimes, mumble, repeat myself, mispronounce words; in other words, I become a blathering, mindless idiot. And, no matter how I try to analyze it, I can’t figure it out. I can work through the jitters if there’s a human on the other end of the line. I’m not as glib as I am on the podium, mike, or in front of the camera, but I can at least manage to sound reasonably intelligent. I just can’t talk to machines.
There’s probably a name for it; some unpronounceable hyphenated phrase that describes the mindless terror I have for that metallic sounding voice saying, “If you wish to speak English, press one, if you don’t know what you’re doing, press the pound sign,” or something like that. I’ve usually forgotten what my choices are, or what button to press, by the time it finishes. Often, I’ve forgotten why I called in the first place. When I call someone, and their machine answers with, “I’m not at home right now, but if you’ll leave your name and number at the sound of the beep, I’ll get back to you,” my first instinct is to hang up. I think I’m afraid the darned machine knows who I am and is just waiting to laugh at my fumbling attempts to leave a message. And, the rare times when I don’t hang up, that’s just what I do; I fumble, I mumble, I forget my name and number. I just plain can’t think of what to say.
The funny thing is, when I’m on an Internet site and I encounter screens that ask me to enter numbers or other information, I have no problem. I don’t mind the written inquisition from a machine. I just don’t like having a machine question me; talk to me; analyze my choices, and then tell me, “Sorry, but I don’t recognize your answer, please repeat.”
Maybe one day, I’ll talk to a professional analyst about this hang up of mine. In the mean time, I’ll just keep doing what I usually do – hang up.