Anyone who’s lived abroad or been in a foreign country for a long time knows what the worst thing in the world is: making a phone call in another language.
The thing is, it’s not immediately obvious that you are about to do something monumentally difficult. After all, calling someone is a pretty straightforward proposition. It’s something that your average kid has done hundreds, if not thousands of times, so I hadn’t considered it to be a danger zone. I soon learned just how true that old saw about “assume” is: making phone calls became the bane of my existence.
The first week I was in Spain, I called about a clogged sink in my bathroom. It wasn’t until I was actually talking to someone that I realized I didn’t know what to say. I started out strong and then quickly fell apart: “I’m calling about…the place in the bathroom… where you wash your hands. It doesn’t go. The water, it’s there. The water doesn’t go, it stays.”
The woman on the other end of the line was used to foreigners but I was quickly losing her anyway. “There is a swimming pool in the place where you wash your hands!” I finally blurted out which wasn’t exactly true, but it got my message across with the degree of urgency I was going for.
Looking back, it’s laughable that I blanked that the sink is the lavabo and that I didn’t remember that a clog is un atasco, but the longer I was on the phone with her, the more I was consumed with self-doubt. The stress of speaking to someone without any visual cues made my lizard brain take over and I was humiliated and basically shut down.
Of course, the plumber showed up later that day so the story has a happy ending. After that disastrous call, I started to prep for phone calls just like I used to prep interview questions back when I was in the news business. I would try to anticipate anything that might be thrown at me during a telephonic exchange and be prepared with responses. It was incredibly time-consuming and, for a long time, I was still thrown for a loop during every conversation, but I also learned something new every time.
The moral of the story is: you’ve got to put yourself on the line. The worst case scenario is that the person on the other end of the line won’t understand you. Unless you’re having a medical emergency, this will not be the end of the world, so just keep your cool and be persistent and eventually you’ll be able to have an argument over the phone. That’s how you know you’ve won.