Recently I’ve started developing little rituals before every phone call I make. I give myself 10 minutes to psych myself up and arrange the room I’m in to be as 'ready' as possible.
This means: a comfortable sitting situation with furniture that doesn’t sound like it’s farting when I move; a full water bottle and an empty bladder and whatever I’m currently anxiously fidgeting with (often knitting) within reach. Sometimes I’ll start bouncing in a boxer shuffle in front of the mirror and mutter "Come on you dickhead" to myself; other times I will press the call button before I have a chance to get too worked up. But every time, in the run-up to and during the ringing sound on the other end of the line, I get that familiar frisson of anxiety up my spine, like I’m about to walk on stage to a very unforgiving crowd.
I feel like that pre-phone call sensation has always been there for me. With the exception of my wife and my parents I have this psychological barrier to picking up the phone, even to call my closest friends. This is true with friends or strangers, and is even more true when the call is spontaneous – whether I’m on the dialling or receiving end, an unplanned phone call can completely throw me. This has only become more exaggerated under lockdown.
Much like everything else in lockdown, there is no universal experience. There are plenty who crave and actively prefer phone calls in general, and especially right now. As my R29 colleague writes in her piece arguing against texting, using the typed word (without the accompanying facial cues, tone, ability to extrapolate and general context you get in person) can result in communication that is efficient but not effective. "I am now convinced that there is nothing that a phone call cannot fix," she writes. In the context of a global pandemic many people, especially those who live alone or are isolated from human contact, see phone calls as a form of solace. When in-person contact is already so limited, they can offer connection that would be otherwise lacking.
But for every person who actively craves phone calls, there are many others who find them an overwhelming, anxiety-inducing activity. While research is limited, so-called 'telephobia' has been documented for years and a recent (albeit small) survey of office workers in the UK found that 40% of baby boomers and 76% of millennials experience anxious thoughts when the phone rings. While this anxiety often goes hand in hand with social anxiety, one does not necessitate the other: there are many people (this writer included) who are perfectly comfortable in face-to-face social interactions but struggle with calls.
Dr Sheri Jacobson, director of Harley Therapy, told R29 that there are several reasons why those of us who struggle with phone calls find them so hard. Primarily she points to the intimidating nature not only of putting yourself out there but of feeling like you are directly imposing on someone’s time. "It's like dropping in on someone that is unannounced, and that comes with a bit of a risk – you don't know if that person is going to be available, receptive to take your call." Moreover, the way someone responds to a call if they’re unavailable or unreceptive can emulate signs of rejection. "If you're sensitive to patterns of rejection, particularly if you've experienced it in the past and deal with it in a way that's distressing for you, then it can activate those older emotions... It potentially taps in on low self-worth as well."
That fear of rejection taps into how difficult it can be to interpret people over the phone. In the same way that in texts we have only the written word, the phone is just a voice detached from a person. There may be tonal cues for how to interpret what someone is saying but you don’t have facial expressions, a shared environment or body language to guide a conversation. It’s worth noting here that these cues by no means offer a clear course for communication or understanding: socio-emotional agnosia – the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language and voice intonation – is common among autistic people and people with schizophrenia. For those who can read facial cues, the lack of them on the phone can be destabilising; for those who can’t, the fact that tone of voice remains a factor adds to confusion. In both cases, it can be anxiety-inducing.
This is exacerbated by the time pressure of a phone call (where you are forced to think on your feet) and the fact that, fundamentally, the majority of us are out of practice. Speaking to The Cut, Jeremy Jamieson, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, likened the younger generations picking up the phone to grandparents learning to use Facebook: "It’s awkward, they don’t know the rules, they don’t know what’s going on." It takes practice to learn the etiquette of a phone call: how to pace a chat, how to go from greeting to the main focus, how to leave without saying "Bye bye, buh bye, buh bye bye byebyebyebyebye." Not everyone knows that intuitively and if, like me, you find yourself avoiding phone calls, you are just delaying a potential opportunity to learn those skills.
It takes practice to learn the etiquette of a phone call: how to pace a chat, how to go from greeting to the main focus, how to leave without saying 'Bye bye, buh bye, buh bye bye byebyebyebyebye.'
Another factor that could have an impact is whether you find conversation on the whole draining or invigorating. The common adage about introverts vs extroverts is that the introverted find social interactions draining, no matter how much they may enjoy them. When I mention this to Sheri, she agrees that your general social nature could have an impact but what is noteworthy is that being introverted doesn’t necessarily mean you are uncomfortable on the phone. What is true, though, is that phone calls have become a lot less comfortable for a lot more of us.
As to why, Sheri theorises that it’s because an unplanned phone call crosses into our personal space, which has now become our entire world. "So our personal space is now our home. Our home is our office. It's our eating space. For some people it's our exercise area as well. It's all really condensed into a very small area. And then it could feel like it's being punctuated with a ringing phone. Whereas messages you have a lot of control over: they are notifications, you can silence the phone, you can quiet certain messages from either different channels or different people with different platforms. There's a lot more of a degree of control." Unless you are the aforementioned type of person who relies on phone calls, penetrating someone’s personal space with an unplanned phone call feels more intrusive than ever.
And that’s before you get to the content of the call. Sheri goes on: "Our whole sense of normality is very, very different. Before we would be inclined to contact people for some news, or to have a general catch-up. Whereas now it seems the stakes are really elevated because our whole world has been shifted upside down." At a time when everyone is struggling in some way, be it emotionally, financially or physically, having an ordinary conversation feels bizarre and a serious conversation exhausting. Trying to 'read the room' when there is so much distress feels impossible. You don’t want to further upset a friend who’s been made redundant, for example, by complaining about your increased workload; you don’t know how to talk about the fact your relative has died when you’re having a laugh with an old mate. And so you turn to text instead, mute your phone and let an incoming call ring out.
We can’t rush out of the pandemic (no matter how much the government pretends we can) and you can’t magic away phone anxiety by calling yourself a dickhead (no matter how often I’ve tried). But what you can do is find a way to manage it. The ultimate point is that we have a choice now about how we communicate: if you don’t want to be receiving calls, you don’t have to. You could have an automatic voicemail that asks people to email or text you if that’s what you prefer.
But if you want to find a way to make and receive calls without a Herculean effort, Sheri advises two courses of action. The first is small and frequent and often: "Do little tests on people who you feel comfortable to make the phone calls to or to receive them from" and slowly push your limits to give you greater time to practise. Or you can, as she so charmingly puts it, eat the frog: "Just go and find the most difficult example that you can think of, and tackle it." If you are ready, you can feel the fear and do it anyway and make that call to the judgmental dentist you haven’t seen for three years. No matter how badly it goes, you can always hang up and try again.