Phone at your own risk

I was talking to a bookseller the other day -- long-distance, on my dime -- when I suddenly realized our chat had strayed far from business. And I was the one doing all the talking.

That's one of the dangers of working at home all day, without colleagues to harangue and complain and share gossip. The telephone becomes your only shot at adult conversation during the workday. Business calls soon turn to chitchat, which turns into big phone bills.

Now you could argue that it's all business, that talking about fishing or cigars or cars with a client is as important as getting to the point. You could say: Let them see our human side, so they'll feel loyalty toward us and our products.

You would be wrong. People in regular offices don't have time for such idle yammering. Their other phones are ringing, their workmates are trying to get their attention, their deadlines loom. They're searching their desks for Maalox while we yak away, telling them about our day at home. Believe me, they don't care how many loads of laundry you did or that the dog ate your sneakers. They're busy.

I know this, yet it's nearly impossible to restrain myself. After a minute or two on the phone, I find myself warming to the conversation. I'm a naturally gregarious person. I love to talk, even when I know the person on the other end of the phone has other, more urgent, things to do.

This talkiness doesn't fit with the other parts of my personality. I'm generally a misanthrope, and I enjoy working all by myself. I remember taking one of those tests they give you in middle school, the ones aimed at helping you settle on a career, and the test found that my personality was best-suited for jobs as a forest ranger or a fire watcher. In other words, I should be working in the forest, all alone, like Bigfoot.

But put me in a group of people, and I'm Mr. Chatty, telling jokes and windy anecdotes, relating the latest news and gossip, dishing out the bon mots like they were bonbons. And since I'm home all day and such opportunities are rare, telephone conversations become my outlet.

Anyone who phones my house is in danger of being tied up for a long time. It's a short hop from "hello" to "did I ever tell you about that time I was in Mexico and we were running out of gas in the desert--" Next thing you know, an hour has passed, and neither of us has gotten any work done.

Sometimes, I get so starved for adult conversation, I even listen to the telemarketers' spiels. Normally, they get two lines into their pitches, and I give them the quick "no thanks" and slam down the phone. But the other day I listened to some woman in North Carolina tell all about the wonderful prizes I would receive if I'd only order some magazines. I still told her "no thanks," but at least I'd heard an adult voice for a while. I wonder if she knew she'd been used.

Notice I keep saying "adult" conversation. This being summertime, I have my two sons at home with me most of the time. They have plenty to say, but the bulk of it centers on Pokemon and X-Men and who-hit-whom-first, and I can only listen to so much of it before my ears start bleeding.

Naturally, a lot of their conversation with me occurs while I'm on the phone with somebody else. Nothing is more magnetic to children than a parent talking on the phone. To them, the ringing of the telephone is like the bell in a boxing ring. It sends them rocketing into action, surrounding Dad, tugging at his sleeve, trying to show him the latest Game Boy victory or missing tooth.

Clients aren't impressed by all the noise in the background. You can only cup your hand over the receiver to say "not now" so many times before the client says "no thanks" and slams down the phone.

So call me up sometime. It'll be a treat. But the conversation could take a while. You've been warned.

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