The other day I was sitting at home trying to write something in a hurry when the phone rang.
“Hi Pilita, it’s James here,” chirped a man who turned out to be a total stranger from a public relations firm, who wanted me to talk to an executive from a company I had never heard of about a topic so dull I cannot remember it.
What I do recall is a monstrous sense of outrage that he had had the gall to call at all. Didn’t he know I was busy? And at home?
This was of course a disproportionate response.
PR people have always cold-called, as have pollsters and sales people from all manner of companies.
The difference, I realised, is that Covid seemed to make a lot of them go away.
Now, as offices steadily refill and the pandemic starts to ease off in many places, they are back. The trouble is, I am not sure that the rest of us are ready.
For one thing, working from home has persisted to an extent that few thought possible.
People are working at home for an average of at least one day a week everywhere from Singapore (where it’s actually 2.4 days) and Canada (2.2 days) to Brazil (1.7), Turkey (1.7) and Greece (1.2).
And for reasons that make no objective sense, being cold-called about a work matter at home feels more invasive and irritating than it did when everyone was sitting in the office five days a week.
After such a long and welcome lull, even getting an uninvited call in the office feels more annoying than it should.
In fact, after my call from James the PR man, I realised I had become so dependent on texts, chat messages and emails during the pandemic that I had dialled back, as it were, on making unsolicited phone calls myself — even to people I know.
When I called a perfectly pleasant professor I’ve known for years on his office landline the other day, I found myself half hoping he would not answer and wondering if he would be annoyed if he did.
Naturally, there was no need to worry because he did not pick up. He was working from home.
I finally understand why a lot of younger workers I know prefer to text or email rather than make a phone call. Once the habit of dialling at will fades, it feels surprisingly awkward to start again.
Still, it is mildly astonishing that outright cold-calling has endured at all.
It was so widely loathed before Covid that authorities around the world were trying to rein it in. The pandemic then ushered in an explosion of phone and text scams that has hardened hatred of it further.
Also, cold-calling has never seemed that effective. Only about 2 per cent of cold calls actually produce an appointment, studies show.
For better or worse, this may be about to change thanks to companies such as PicUP, a tech group in Israel that wants to revolutionise phone sales.
Its software lets a business make calls that show up on a recipient’s screen with a number, name, face or logo that clearly identifies who is calling, rather than the “Incoming caller unknown” message that is the hallmark of the cold-caller.
The idea is to make sales calls transparent and therefore more trustworthy, Lior Shacham, PicUP’s chief executive and co-founder, told me last week.
“What we do basically is help callers transform the call from cold-calling to something much more respectful, personalised, and engaging for the customer.”
He may be right. His company’s clients already include large EU telecoms groups and a UK bank.
Yet listening to him talk made me think of simpler times, like those that forged the veteran US journalist Gay Talese.
A few years ago, I heard him talk about his early days in The New York Times newsroom of the 1950s, where an older reporter warned him never to let newfangled technologies get in the way of talking to people in person.
Or as the older man put it: “Young man, stay away from the telephone.”