Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were caught in a race to the finish line in 1876 in attempts to receive the patent for what has been considered a great invention that has, for almost a century and a half, improved the way human beings have been able to effectively and efficiently communicate with each other all over the world.
That is, unless you’re an Aspie.
For many people with Asperger’s I have spoken to, communicating via a telephone can be just as hard, if not harder, than communicating with someone face-to-face. Whilst those with Asperger’s Syndrome find it difficult, even impossible, to interpret social cues and facial expressions, this is a skill that can be learned with time and persistance by 'cataloguing' various experiences in your mind and attempting to recall them whilst talking to somebody, or even by relying on and copying the reactions of the other people involved in the conversation.
Over the phone, it’s not exactly that simple. Using a telephone means that we are unable to physically see the person we are communicating with, and therefore we have to rely on our own instincts and on verbal and emotional cues to figure out when and when not to chime in, as well as how to react and what to say.
I’ve always had a problem with using the phone. I know it’s probably not the same for all Aspies out there, because just like neurotypicals we’re all different. But I believe my difficulties with using the phone, which have developed into a full-fledged phobia (or should I say 'fear', considering 'phobia' usually implies that it’s irrational with no real base for the emotion?), are caused by my Aspergic traits.
I work in a call centre. And there’s the irony of this entire blog – I’m an Aspie with a pronounced, crippling fear of telephones, and I work in a call center. Laugh it up. The people I work with are extremely accepting of my weird, quirky nature (the way I will spontaneously try to chime into conversations with things that make no sense, my little OCD habits, the way I’ll babble for hours about specific narrow-minded topics, the way I’ll hide by myself in a corner if socializing becomes a little too much… the list goes on), and I enjoy my job for the most part. I work in the Resolutions Department of an online retail store, and the majority of my workload is handled via e-mail.
However, I go to work every day with that subconscious gnawing at my stomach, the ever-present fear that I will be asked to log into the customer service queue and assist with their call overflow.
On Monday, two days ago, I received an e-mail from a customer. She was angry because I had requested, via e-mail, photographs of the item she purchased that arrived damaged on her doorstep. And she demanded that I call her so that we could, quote on quote, 'talk. Immediately, I felt a pit open up in my stomach. I sat there and stared at the screen. My first inward response was, “But we can’t talk on the phone! We’re handling this by e-mail, that’s what I do. That’s my job!” Throwing a telephone in there still confuses me somewhat, especially considering my mental map of a typical order that crosses my desk is all e-mail based. Heck, I’m even terrified of using the fax machine! Anything that breaks the rigid, tight schedule of e-mails and pre-constructed templates with tiny personal changes just doesn’t compute in my mind for the most part, and leaves me with a sense of confusion.
And then, the fear sets in. I think I spent about forty-five minutes in a bathroom stall, breathing shallow and trying to keep myself from going over the edge. There’s been times before where I’ve had to call a customer and I’ve panicked myself so much that I’ve thrown myself into a full autistic meltdown at work. Luckily, I have a few friends at work who are aware of my Asperger’s, who know of the Rumble-Rage-Recovery system, and who are able to help remove me from any situation where it looks like I may break down in front of my other coworkers.
Now, the expected response time to get back to a customer’s e-mail is twenty-four to forty-eight hours. So what did I do? I ignored it. I pushed the e-mail to the bottom of my Outlook, left it as read, and procrastinated for as long as I could. The e-mail sat there for the duration of Monday, Tuesday, and finally today, when I was finally forced to face it. I have ignored phone call requests from customers before, which has landed me in deep trouble with my supervisors. I can’t very well explain to them that I’m terrified of talking to people on the phone, can I?
So today, I spent about an hour staring at the order, re-reading all of my e-mails, trying to mentally prepare myself for the inevitable phone call that was looming over me like an Angel of Death. I felt sick, I was panicking, but I continued to write out on a piece of paper just about every single answer to every single question she could possibly ask me about her damaged product. My fingers were shaking as I typed in her number, and I kept hanging up before I was finished so that I would have to type it again, stalling for time. Each ring sounded like it lasted about a minute, and each time I prayed the answerphone would kick in.
Now, I leave answerphone messages like a complete wreck. I always feel like I’m talking to a box. I’ll usually stutter my message out, and end with an awkward, “So, yeah. Um, call me back! Okay, so… yeah. See you then!” I think ‘so, yeah’ has become my catchphrase – I seem to use it all the same when I have no idea how to conclude a sentence, or whether the other person is waiting for me to say more, or whether I SHOULD say more. But anyhu…
The answerphone did not pick up, and instead my customer did. I never know if they can tell whether or not my voice is shaking, but save for freezing up every now and then, I honestly think I do a bang on job for someone who’s absolutely petrified of talking over the phone. I thicken my British accent as much as I can (North Americans are typically receptive to this, I’ve noticed) and my voice usually pitches up ridiculously high and becomes very rigid, structured and proper. But I get through it. She was angry, but I don’t think she was as angry as I thought she would be. I promised I would do what I could to proceed without photographs, and she agreed. So I hung up.
I never really know when is the best time to hang up, either. I’ve cut so many people off before, and just sat there staring at the phone thinking, “Oh crap, what did I just do?!” My fear of cutting people off usually leads to dead air on the line, as I never really know when to talk so, to avoid interrupting, I usually just… don’t.
I’m the same with my cell phone. My motto is, “If it’s important, they’ll leave a message or text me!” There’s about a total of three people I’ll willingly answer the phone to, and the rest I will ignore and pretend I didn’t hear it ringing. When people call me out of the blue, I’m usually stuttering, or I just sit on the line and don’t quite know what to say. I hate it when people call to 'chat'. Using the phone in that situation will make me angry and irritable, and I’ll start to feel the oncoming Rumble effect. I’ve had full-out fits on the phone with people because they’ve asked me, “What’s wrong? You sound upset?” and I’ve just exploded at them. The motto of the story being: it’s better to just send me a text.
I have issues with making phone calls all the time. If I’m co-piloting the car and my friend says to me, “Call so-and-so and let him know we’re almost there,” I will always, ALWAYS text. I won’t call unless I’m absolutely forced to. If I have to make professional calls, such as inquiring about singing lessons or college courses, or trying to rent something, I will freeze up and quite often, if forced further, throw a tantrum. Another thing that I have trouble with is calling to order food to take-out. I’ve gotten on the line with Panago Pizza so many times and the lady has answered, “Hello, my name is –blank-, what can I get for you this evening?” and I’ve replied, “Um… I'd like a pizza, please.”
I’ve lived my entire life by mimicking other people in social situations, and reacting to certain circumstances in an over-dramatic manner that I have seen people on TV shows and characters in cartoons perform. So when I’m stuck on one end of a telephone relying purely on vocal cues, conversations can become very tense, very stressful, and very panicking for me, to a point where I will flat out ignore calls and refuse to make them, and become increasingly angry, irritable and afraid if I have to. For now, I think I'd like to stick to texting, e-mails, and instant messaging.
Maybe once they figure out a way to incorporate big, yellow emoticons into telephone calls, I’ll find it easier to communicate?