x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Is the telephone for you? If not, you're not worth talking to

There is a solution for those of us who worry about not receiving important phone calls: call a random person, leave a message of urgency and don't return his or her call. And get back to work.

Back before we all had electronic voicemail, during the time that everyone had a telephone answering machine, a colleague of mine once wrote a scene about a guy who throws a dinner party in order to impress a certain female guest.

When she arrives, as she's taking in his apartment, she notices that he doesn't have a telephone answering machine.

"What happens when you get important phone calls?" she asks.

"I don't get important phone calls," he says.

Which is a sort of funny and charming and character-revealing line, and it set him up as a loveable but ineffectual kind of guy, but also as someone with the kind of strength and independence not to worry about who might or might not call him.

The network executives hated that line. The studio executives, too, wanted it out. They simply couldn't accept that anyone worth talking about, any character worth writing a scene about, wouldn't have an answering machine, and worse, wouldn't hang his head in hot, cheek-burning shame that he didn't get important phone calls.

Apparently, the discussion went on for hours. You cannot say this about someone, they told the writer. You cannot have a character in your show who does not get important phone calls.

Why? he kept asking the network executives.

Because a person who doesn't get important phone calls, they told him with trembling and emotional voices, is a loser. Is a failure. Is a nobody.

According to psychologists, when a person unconsciously denies his or her deepest fears and anxieties, they often project these attributes onto someone else, even sitcom characters. It's called "projection".

Now, I'm not a trained psychiatrist, of course, but I know "projection" when I see it. Getting important phone calls is one of the chief badges of importance for a lot of people in this business. Sorry, they'll say breathlessly, as they arrive late for a meeting, I was on the phone with … and then they'll name their immediate boss (or, better, their boss's boss) and slowly stop hyperventilating from the emotional and physical high of the important phone call.

So the spectre of a character who doesn't get important phone calls - and, worse, isn't undone by this deficiency - carries with it the threat of contagion. It's as if just putting it out there, just articulating the thought that some people just don't get important phone calls, might somehow create the reality.

It's enough to send some executives into fits. Get that line out of there, they say, with the kind of purposeful seriousness people use when they squirt antibacterial gel onto their hands and rub the disease away.

It's no use trying to explain that getting important phone calls really isn't all that meaningful, that most phone calls aren't important anyway. It's the same with e-mails: most of them are just evasive manoeuvres designed to shift the responsibility for some impending disaster onto the recipient, who usually forwards the e-mail to another hapless colleague, usually with "FYI" tacked on at the top.

On the other hand, as a writer who works at home, I don't get that many important phone calls or urgent e-mails. So naturally I side with a character in a script who doesn't either. Maybe I'm the one who's projecting here.

I'm sure I'm guilty of numberless psychological ticks and disorders, but in this case, I'm shooting straight. We do create an awful lot of turbulence for each other in the entertainment business - and in every business - when we don't have to. The beehive of hyperactive e-mails and 7pm conference calls really don't make the project, whatever project, any better. They just makes it noisier. They make us feel busier. More important. Less like we're at the mercy of a lot of randomly moving parts that may or may not add up to anything, or give our project a green light, or deliver a hit television show.

But if people are calling you, and they're important, then that means that you're important too. And for a lot of people, that's enough. So here's my solution: tomorrow, let's all pick a random person, call him or her, and leave the same message: Please return, Urgent, ASAP.

And then let's agree not to return that call. And the next day, we'll pick another random name and repeat. Until everyone has made and received a bunch of important phone calls, and we can all get back to work.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood