A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Fear and loathing on the telephone

Marshall McLuhan (1960, age 48).  The telephone blinds us to its power

The other day Everett Munro, a businessman here in Toronto, and one of my leading fans in the Hogtown business community, spoke to me about a problem he was having.  Normally he said, “speaking to my boss is not a problem.  But whenever we speak on the phone I’m gripped by fear.  My voice shakes and I have difficulty breathing.  I don’t understand it.  It seems so irrational.  I actually like my boss.  We get along.  Sure he’s demanding.  Wants things right and wants them right now.  But I’m the same way with the guys who work for me.  Is there anything I can do to stop this?  It’s driving me crazy.”

I was able to set him right.  “Your problem, I said, “Is that you do not realize the power of the telephone. The telephone is such an intense auditory experience that it blacks out the visual.  It blinds our power to see.  You’ve got to work to involve the other senses, to counteract the power it’s having on the balance of your senses.  Here’s the bottom line.  Try to visualize to picture your boss when you’re speaking to him.”

Me (November 2009, age 57).  What if he’s right?

This story is told by Philip Marchand in his 1989 biography of McLuhan.  It is difficult to tell what Marchand himself thinks of the advice McLuhan gave to the nervous businessman. He writes matter-of-factly that Marshall McLuhan’s advice “doubtless would have sounded farfetched to many people, but the businessman tried it and it worked.”  But we are left wondering whether McLuhan’s advice is really all that useful or is it actually something of a scam.  Something that appeared to help but in actual fact was just a coincidence, or a placebo.

This is the story, however, that stimulated my own fascination with McLuhan.  For like the nervous businessman I often found myself feeling nervous speaking to people on business calls.  Curious, I tried McLuhan’s suggestion, and I found that it worked.

Does McLuhan’s advice sound far-fetched to you?  Do you ever find yourself feeling nervous speaking on the telephone? Why don’t you try McLuhan’s suggestion too and let me know what happens?  What have you got to lose?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand. Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, 1989. P. 150.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, November 24th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Technology, Vol. 1 No Comments

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