April 20, 2013

It's Your Call

Mental health tip: Just call.

When you miss a deadline or make a mistake at work, it is better to call or email? If you can't make your friend's dinner party after all, or remembered your sister's birthday only the following day, is it better to call or text?

Often when we're handling a stressful or delicate situation, we opt to email or text instead of calling. We tell ourselves that we're saving time, but usually the decision is motivated by avoidance. That is, we're anxious about the annoyance, anger, or disappointment that our communication may generate, and try to decrease our anxiety by avoiding the recipient's real-time reaction.

Is this a good strategy? Consider this story that a friend told me recently

Last Friday, a colleague missed an important commitment at work--an obligatory weekly meeting that staff in her small office cannot miss without an exceptional reason. She had a good excuse to miss the meeting, but it was personal and she didn't want to discuss the details with our boss. Anxious about his reaction to her absence, she decided to email the day before to say that she would miss the meeting for personal reasons. 

This was the first point where a phone call would have been preferable. My colleague sent the email and waited to feel relief, but none came. Instead, she became more and more nervous as she imagined our boss's angry response. Three hours later, she received a brief reply saying of course she could miss the meeting--if she really felt she needed to. The tone of the email was ambiguous and she felt flustered and panicked. This was the second point when my colleague could have picked up the phone, but the desire to avoid facing our boss was too strong. She didn't call and instead treated herself to a weekend of lingering stress.

How would calling have helped in this situation? First, my colleague would have been able to explain herself clearly, assuaging her concerns about being perceived as a slacker or malingerer. Second, she would have been able to gauge our boss's reaction, which is difficult over email. Third, the issue would have been resolved in minutes. Instead, she fretted all weekend--only to learn on Monday that our boss had been entirely unconcerned!

The question of calling versus texting or emailing is not limited to work situations, but is equally relevant in the social realm. When we're running late or have to miss a social occasion altogether, or don't want to tell our partner that we forgot to pick up milk--again--we use text messages to avoid directly witnessing negative reactions.

Example: Earlier this week, I had to cancel plans with a friend for the second time in a row. I didn't want to face his hurt or irritation so rather than calling, I texted to say I couldn't get together that evening after all, but how about Friday instead? He responded quickly: "ok." I waited for a further text, but none came, leaving me feeling uneasy and uncertain. Was "ok" equivalent to "No prob, see you Friday! :)" or did it mean something closer to "WTF?! :(" Remembering my patient's story, I called my friend instead of texting back. It turned out that he was at work--which explained the brevity of his response--and had to work late and was happy to postpone our plans.

How did calling help in this situation? First, I had the chance to fully explain why I had to cancel plans again, preventing my friend from perceiving me as inconsiderate. Second, I was able to assess his reaction, which was impossible from his ambiguous text. Third, rather than fretting about it until Friday, the situation was resolved in minutes.

Text messaging and email are great tools when used appropriately, but problematic when used in the spirit of avoidance. The next time you notice yourself texting or emailing when you know you should call, remember that avoidance maintains anxiety, and ask yourself if you'd feel better if you made the call. Even if your feared outcome comes true--e.g., your sister is hurt about her birthday, or your partner is cranky about the milk--at least you know where you stand and can start making amends. 

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