If there’s a theme to my blog posts, it’s something along the lines of Complexity is Killing Us. The complexity of investment options is why you’re afraid to put your money anywhere but inside an old sock. Complexity is why the healthcare system in the United States is apparently unfixable. Complexity is why scientists can’t convince a large segment of the public to believe in evolution or global warming. Complexity is why your computer spends all morning begging you for updates instead of just doing what-the-frakk you want it to do. And lately, I’ve noticed that routine conversations have become too complicated.
In simpler times, I imagine conversations went like this:
Nobleman: “Hey, peasant, would you like a potato?”
Peasant: “Does it come with a beating?”
Nobleman: “A brief one. My arms are tired.”
Peasant: “Then yes, I would like a potato.”
These days, there’s no such thing as a simple conversation. When you get a business call, it might start with a history of the industrial age, a complete explanation of some sort of technology, an exposition of budgetary limitations, a verbal sketch of the characters, a briefing on the politics of the situation, with a full accounting of the timing, the risks, the opportunity, so on. Sometimes you want to know all of that stuff, and you have the time to listen. Other times, you already have the information, or you don’t have time to listen, or you’re the wrong person. That’s when you have to go for the interrupt. And interrupting is getting harder every year.
Thanks to complexity, and the impact it has on people’s schedules, if you get a person’s attention, you want to take advantage of it before your listener gets into an automobile accident, or has to run for another meeting, or his kid starts vomiting, or he simply can’t hold his bladder one more minute. Your best strategy is to prevent the other person from talking – not a single peep – until you have said every last thing that you called to say. I believe this is a modern phenomenon. My guess is that in olden days it was customary to pause in your fire-hose-monologue now and then to let the other person ask for clarification, make a point, or just sigh. Now any pause introduces an unacceptable risk of a failed phone call. The interrupter’s job is harder than ever.
I have experimented with ways to interrupt the fire-hose-monologue without seeming rude, but social conventions haven’t evolved fast enough to provide a polite solution. So far, the best I have come up with is some variant on “Can I interrupt you?” But it always feels as if I just called someone a time-wasting windbag. And I’ve tried “Whoa, whoa,” but it feels as if I’m scolding a horse.
I propose a new custom for interrupting when it’s absolutely necessary. Make a beeping sound like a garbage truck when it backs up. That way it won’t seem so personal. Try it and let me know how that works out for you.