M-Theory: Engagement, anxiety and the lost art of using the telephone Melanie Baker November 24, 2016 Columns, Communitech, Featured, M-Theory A long time ago I wrote a piece that can be summed up in two words: Go outside. This was a literal exhortation: Don’t stare at screens all day. Socially, humans need direct human interactions. The tech industry likes its echo chambers, which aren’t good for anyone. Spoiler alert: This is a tech column about not using tech. Because I am pretty sure there are lots of tech savvy folks like me who care about the world, but would be much more comfortable engaging from behind a screen. Whether it’s the upcoming holiday season, the state of our country, or our neighbour nation to the south, engagement of various kinds is important. Typing madly is only effective in certain circumstances. I was reminded to “go outside” recently when I read an article by a congressional staff member on how to get your government representatives to actually listen to you. The article is actually a series of tweets. The flow of the tweets is smart. The author is clearly thinking the way a lot of us think, and addresses the modes of communication in order (I suspect) of volume received, likelihood of use and least-to-greatest effectiveness. I agree with her, but reading it made me somewhat uncomfortable. She starts off saying that writing on social media (Twitter, Facebook) is largely ineffective. Government representatives’ staffs are mostly concerned with policing for harassment and such rather than engaging with constituents on those channels. Not terribly surprising. She also said that emailing isn’t great, either. After all, don’t we all have endlessly rising tides in our inbox? Why would government reps and their teams be any different? She comments that writing an actual letter is relatively effective, depending upon where you send it and presumably qualities like how well and civilly it’s written. But it’s impossible for staff to really read and respond to all or even a majority of written correspondence. You’re likely to receive a form letter in response. Then we get to the scary part of the article. “…the most effective thing is to actually call them on the phone. At their district (state) office. They have to talk to you there.” As well as… “But, phone calls! That was a thing that shook up our office…” I assure you, madame, that the mere idea of making cold phone calls shakes me up, too. I do not use a phone for work and avoid phone calls as much as possible in my personal life. It was timely and reassuring, then, to see this article soon after: How to call your reps when you have social anxiety. It’s done in comic form, and each panel explains a discrete step to follow, accompanied by reassurances. It’s written for Americans, but just replace “House” with “MP/MPP,” for example. Deep breath… you can do this. We can do this. And yes, Canadians, being politically and socially active is important for us, too. I’ve seen quite a few politically motivated domain names registered in the last couple of weeks. The registrations started the night of the U.S. election, unsurprisingly. Some are funny, some are heartbreaking and some are a little disturbing. With each one, though, I’ve had to wonder whether a website would actually get used for anything. And if it did, would anyone see it? After all, while there’s no guarantee someone will read or respond to email or social media posts, they are, at least to a degree, directed at someone. But most websites, to be honest, are shouting (or selling) into the void. A few days ago I also participated in a discussion about how people can speak up and act in person if they witness incidents of abuse or harassment. This was in response to the rash of attacks against women, LGBTQ+ people, Muslims and people of colour after the U.S. election. Several people definitely wanted to be able to do this, but expressed reticence about their ability in the moment during a stressful confrontation. It’s a fair worry. If you have trouble making small talk in line at a coffee shop, it’s not going to be easy to step in and step up if a stranger is screaming abuse or being threatening. One thing we talked about was practising to make it easier. It also helps to start with easier, lower-stakes situations. Make a little small talk in line at the coffee shop or with the cashier at the grocery store. Attend a meetup. Our local tech community has tons. (Take a friend with you the first time if needed.) Identify what’s out of your comfort zone (crowds, people, places, etc.) and work toward that. It’s easier for me to say and do. I’ve practised, and I’m white, female, and have pink hair. Pretty much no one has concerns about talking to me. Choose your opportunities safely. Keep in mind, too, that’s it’s okay if not all attempts go splendidly. Maybe the other person is too shy, or having a bad day. Just try again another time. Now, you may already be politically or socially active or think your interactions are fine. Or you may not be interested. You do you. These are grownup skills in general, not just for activism. A single short phone call can be more effective than 20 emails. An evening out chatting with people can provide more connection than a week of Facebook or Snapchat. Plus, let’s face it; generally, being online tends to expose us to less difference and constructive discomfort, not more. Most importantly, though, I speak from experience when I say that meeting a wiener dog in a jaunty sweater is way better in person than just seeing pictures on Instagram. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.