Before November, I had never called an elected official. Way back in high school, I wrote a letter to my town council, about something tiny—the safety of a local intersection, I think it was. It was for a class assignment and not something I felt super-strongly about. My councilperson delivered a written response in person to my house, which was both awesome and terrifying. A few years later, I emailed my representatives at all levels, local through federal, asking for pins to trade at an international event. (Is this still a thing one can do? I don’t know.) All were quite responsive; I got several bags of nice pins.
But calling? I hate making phone calls. The social anxiety I have about talking to people in person is an order of magnitude worse on the phone, where I have no visual cues and it’s hard to hear what people are saying half the time. This phone-hate is not uncommon, I gather, among anxious folk and among introverts more broadly.
People in the know, however, say that calling is the most effective way to get your point across to an elected official, short of showing up at an in-person event when they’re in town. So now, I call.
It’s still a lot of work for me. I have to write out what I’m going to say (or find a script I can use), with adjustments for leaving a voicemail versus talking to a live person. I have to spend a solid ten minutes just sitting in silent isolation with my phone and my script, mentally preparing. And then I have to decompress afterward, for however long that takes.
At the same time, I have to combat the thoughts that tell me I’m not doing enough. There are so many things I could be doing, so many calls I could be making. There are activism messages saying I ought to be making longer, more confrontational phone calls. The amount of input that I have to sort through to figure out what I should do and say is overwhelming.
To combat all the different directions of anxiety, I try to remember a few things:
1. Doing something is better than doing nothing. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and all that. Right now, my choice isn’t between “make a long, involved call” and “make a short, here’s-my-message call.” It’s between “make a short, here’s-my-message call” and “don’t call.” So I do the thing that I can do, which is less than some people can do, but still a thing done. Similarly, when I put in a solid effort to call about something and get only busy signals and full voicemails, I’ve given myself permission to not feel bad about emailing instead. A message in a less-noticed medium is better than no message at all.
2. Focus is good. Basically another take on point #1. I can’t make calls every day—I would be a constant nervous wreck. And I don’t have the mental space to keep track of every single issue. So I don’t: instead, I pick the issues I’m going to follow in-depth. (For the curious, these are health care / women’s health / reproductive rights, and LGBTQ+ equality. These may not be your personal top-priority issues, and that’s OK. Point 2 in this piece has a good explanation of why.) Regardless of issue, I also call my Congresspeople on the rare occasions when they do something I approve of, because positive feedback is good, too.
3. Those people answering the phone? That’s their job. They are specifically supposed to be listening to me and passing on my message in some appropriate fashion. I am not imposing on their lives.
4. I’m not the weirdest person who’s ever called. Even when I’m nervous, even if I trip over my words, I figure the person answering the phone has heard worse. I’m polite, and I’m calling about something that’s reasonably connected to reality. (Note that by “polite,” I don’t mean “agreeable,” I mean “recognizes that the staffer on the phone is another human being.”)
5. I’m not alone. This is relevant for both external impact (my call doesn’t mean much on its own, but as part of a hundred calls, it matters) and internal turmoil (loads of people have varying degrees of phone anxiety). When I’m freaking out, I review the helpful “How to call your reps when you have social anxiety“—it reminds me of my strategy, and reassures me that others are dealing with this too.
I tell myself these things, and I keep going.