Phone calls from others are an increasingly irritating source of interruptions, unlike the phone calls that I make. What follows is a collection of advice assembled from my experiences as a doctor.
Telephones provide irresistible interruptions. You can be discussing vitally important topics such as the state of the world, or the latest atrocity in Big Brother
and a ringing telephone takes precedence. Why? There is obviously some deep psychological reason. Perhaps some unconscious memory of times long past when church bells demanded that you attend church? Anyway, someone always answers the phone and thus two conversations have to take place simultaneously but it is psychologically impossible for two people to talk simultaneously, for longer than a few seconds. The person answering the phone should cup his or her hand over the phone mouthpiece so that they can continue the interrupted conversation.
Hardly any people who say that they will phone you back actually do so. To encourage them, find out their name and ensure that they know you know: 'I'm sorry I did not catch your name'. (I imagine this is a perfect way to irritate an ex-wife.) Give a deadline. 'If I have not heard from you by 4pm can I ring you back? At what number?'
If someone is on the phone and you wish to communicate with them, do not speak to them. No-one can hold a conversation with one person whilst listening to a third person. Pass them a brief note.
On the telephone, as in life, people don't listen when they are talking (we only have one mouth but two ears, presumably in an attempt to rectify this). Accordingly, do not interrupt until the caller has finished their account. But sometimes you have to interrupt. Never interrupt when someone is in mid-sentence. This is very rude. Interrupt when they are taking a breath, usually at the end of a sentence. This is less rude. To avoid interruptions, some politicians take breaths mid-sentence. Mrs Thatcher did this a lot. It is physiologically impossible to continue speaking whilst also listening so, as in normal life, keep talking whenever an irritating interruption is attempted. Mrs Thatcher did this a lot.
There is an art to terminating phone calls from irritating callers (there seem to be more as I get older) who phone up with trivia (the definition of trivia has also expanded as I get older). A direct or indirect suggestion that you are in the middle of something more important either seems rude or doesn't work. The answer is simple – cut yourself off! Do this when you are talking. Never do it at the end of one of your sentences (this is too obvious). Cut yourself off mid-sentence. And then make yourself unavailable to take any attempted reconnection that, strangely enough, occurs less often than you might anticipate.
The master technique when such a phone call interrupts a discussion with colleagues is to discretely cut yourself off and continue talking: 'I can understand why you might think this but in fact you are a blithering idiot whose opinions are not worth listening to and I think you ought to jump off the Forth Road Bridge. Look to the left as you go, the views better'. Put the handset down and enjoy the electrifying effect on your colleagues whose mouths will be hanging open (Yes, it is true, people who are gobsmacked do let their mouths hang open). It is only fair to then tell them you had cut yourself off after '… but in fact'.
Abusive telephone calls threatening official complaints or worse can usually be mollified. My classic as a consultant in infectious diseases who had to deal with HIV positive drug users was a call from an addict enraged when I declined to provide extra methadone which his 'dog had drunk' (it was unclear how the dog had dealt with the childproof screw bottle top). This was usefully misdirected by inventing a euphonious non-existent organisation, such as the Senior British Physicians Trust, and stating: 'You can report me to anyone you like as long as you don't report me to the Senior British Physicians Trust'. Another similar technique was to acquiesce to all demands: 'I am perfectly willing to prescribe this but the prescription would bounce because of government regulations'.
Philip D Welsby
It's The Weekend
Blowing a gale.
Duvet over the head,
Safe and cosy in the wee swamp, sorted.
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