x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Hanging on the telephone is no key to success

Only unimportant people check their phones regularly. Those really in the big time know whoever wants them will call back

A few nights ago, when I was out to dinner with some friends, one of us initiated a little game. He had all of us place our mobile phones on the table, stacked up, where they were to remain for the duration of the dinner.

"The first person who checks his phone," he told us, "has to pay for dinner."

This sounded like a great idea because, of course, who can't get through a simple dinner without checking their phone? What kind of sad and emotionally stunted person can't immerse himself in a real-life conversation without compulsively checking out?

We all did the best we could. But every time a phone would ring or buzz, the stack would shake itself and collapse, and it was impossible when re-stacking the phones not to sneak a peek. And I'm pretty sure that one or two of us deliberately pounded the table a time or two to dislodge the stack of phones, which also gave everyone an opportunity for a furtive check-in.

By the time the bill arrived, pretty much everyone had satisfied the itch to check the phone, and no one could really be called the loser.

I mean, all of us were losers, really, because none of us could manage to get through one dinner - filled with old friends and conversation - without robotically checking the little screen we all carry around in our pockets to see if someone else - someone not at the table - wanted to tell us something or if someone who was actually at the table wanted to text something privately.

I'm not saying anything new here, I know, about our collective need to stay connected and reachable, and our willingness to be interrupted when we're in the middle of a conversation - even a trivial one - for another kind of conversation - an even more trivial one.

I have often found myself absorbed in irrelevant and pointless conversations - via text, Twitter, email or phone - while real life in all of its vibrant chaos teems around me. I'm not proud of this, but I was once distracted in the middle of giving a speech to a group of about 200 people because I got a text message from a friend which read, in its entirety, "S'up?"

I was using my phone on the lectern as a timekeeping device, and forgot that it in addition to keeping my speech at the right length, it would also flash every text, Tweet, and email I received. The topic of my speech - and I'm not kidding - was Capturing an audience's attention in the age of new media.

I thought about all of this recently when I got a call from a man who runs a pretty far-flung media operation - a busy guy with lots of fingers in lots of pies worldwide - and when he left me a message, he gave me a number to call back on. I don't have many powerful friends - I'm a writer, after all, and we tend to be kept in the stables with the slow children and the livestock - but I do have one or two, and when they call I always try to call back promptly.

Which I did a few hours later. The line rang and rang. No answer, no voicemail, no prim and attitudinal assistant saying: "I'm sorry, I don't have him." No nothing. Just ringing.

Which was weird, of course, and the last thing you'd expect from a powerful person who, as we're told incessantly about powerful people, needs to be reachable at all times.

I tried the number off and on, and when no one answered, I got concerned. Did I write the number down wrongly? I replayed the voicemail - nope, that's the number. Did I need a country code? I tried again, using the first two digits as a country code, but all that accomplished was waking up someone in Japan.

Finally, I decided to email his assistant with something that struck the right tone between an apology - sorry to have missed him, I think, is this the right number? - and incredulity - does his phone just ring and ring? Is there no voicemail in the empire?

What I learnt was this: he uses the phone that's nearest him. And if it rings, he answers it. And if he moves away from that phone or heads to another office, that pretty much ends that conversation. And if he wants to pick it back up again, he'll reach for whichever phone he's near at that time and make a call.

This means that he misses a lot of calls, and that he's often unreachable. Not to everyone, of course, but to a pretty large group of folks who are just trying to call him back. Somehow, though, he manages not only to keep on living a full life, but also to thrive in business.

Small timers like me check our phones and jump at every text. Big timers, I now realise, are big despite - or probably because - they don't.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl