In the words of Lady Gaga: stop calling, stop calling, I don’t wanna talk anymore.
Your damp palms shake. Sweat pools in the crevices of your shirt. Your heart pounds loudly in your ears, almost distracting you from the throbbing in your head. You can’t seem to focus on anything except finding an excuse to put this off. But you know eventually you’ll have to make this phone call.
Though not all instances of phone-phobia are this extreme, phone call anxiety is rampant and intense enough that it can prevent people from things as menial as making dinner reservations to something as serious as doctor’s appointments. They can get in the way of professional pursuits as well, since most recruiters require a phone screening in the early stages of the interview process. Even though almost everything is online these days, phone calls remain a necessary part of functioning as an adult in today’s world. So why is it that so many of us can’t seem to overcome it? And why is it so hard to handle in the first place?
For some, it can come down to social anxiety. Speaking to people — especially faceless strangers — can be difficult, and can conjure up irrational scenarios of stumbling over your words, sounding like an idiot, making a fool out of yourself, and ruining the relationship completely. The faceless aspect is especially troublesome, as watching people’s faces and body language when you speak to them is one proven way to feel more comfortable in a conversation. You can’t always hear the cheerfulness in someone’s voice, so without the visible smile, that enthusiasm can come across as sarcastic or harsh, which contributes to feelings of embarrassment and self-doubt on the caller’s end.
Phone calls also come with a time element. You don’t always have the luxury of taking a few moments to prepare a response, and it’s harder to tell when the conversation is over because you can’t see the other person’s body language (such as a soft smile or hand gesture) that tells you they’re finished. If you’ve ever had to search for your credit card or ID with someone on the other line waiting patiently for that information, you know all about the magical phenomenon in which your wallet magically disappears the second you need it.
For myself and many others, the anxiety is from a technical standpoint; there’s nothing more frustrating than being on an important call and having to strain to hear what the other person is saying due to bad reception or background noise. You don’t want to feel judged for saying, “sorry, what was that? You cut out for a moment,” over and over again, even if the shoddy connection isn’t your fault. Worse yet, since it’s hard to tell when the other person will begin talking, some people fear the moment of accidentally interrupting the person on the other line or cutting them off, which, though common, can seem unprofessional and rude.
“The person on the other line is probably dreading this call as much as you are.”
No matter what the cause is of our phone anxiety, it’s still one of those phobias that everyone has to face at some point in their lives. So when you’re ready to tackle your telephobia, clinical psychologist Alexander Queen recommends starting by thinking of each phone call in a structured way. Each fear that pops into your mind throughout the call can have a logical answer:
What if they don’t want to hear from me? Well, then they probably won’t pick up in the first place.
What if I stumble over my words? People stutter and stumble all the time. It won’t be the first they hear today.
What if they cut out and I have to ask them to repeat themselves? That’s not your fault. If anything, they’ll get the chance to regroup and be more clear in their answer.
Another technique is to fake it until you make it. Pretend you’re an Oscar-winning actor and put on the most confident voice you can muster up. Put a massive smile on your face and sit up straight in your chair. Studies show that if you act confident and happy, you’ll start to feel confident and happy. Act like you’re the nice version of Miranda Priestly making important vendor calls instead of a dentist appointment — you’ll feel empowered in no time.
Ask a friend to help you practice phone calls at home. Call them up and close your eyes, picturing their voice as coming from directly across the table from you. Imagine them smiling and nodding along, reacting positively to everything you’re saying. Then do this each time you call someone, even for something as mundane as ordering a pizza. No matter what the other person’s voice sounds like, visualize them as enthusiastic listeners. You’ll be surprised how much easier the call will seem.
Finally, stop putting off your phone calls. The longer you wait to make them, the more you’ll build them up in your mind as something to fear. If you make the call as soon as you find out you need to, the act will seem as seamless and natural as a text. Try not to think about it for too long — just dial, put the phone to your ear, and then freak out. It’s much harder to avoid making a call once you hear the ringing begin. Once the initial panic has subsided, you can work on the above techniques, including some mindful breathing to help center yourself.
And remember that the person on the other line is probably dreading this call as much as you are. Telephobia is incredibly common, with over 3 million people affected by it in the UK alone. When two nervous people get on the line together, it’s going to be much more difficult to be productive than if they both pretended to be confident, got exactly what they wanted out of the conversation, and hung up feeling satisfied — if a little socially exhausted.
The art of the conversation is a sacred one. You never know what connections you could be missing out on until you hit that little green button. Even if that connection only lasts long enough to schedule your next dental cleaning.