For a growing number of people, the ring of a cell phone isn't a welcome sign that someone is thinking about them. Instead, it's a moment of dread that signals the beginning of an uncomfortable, and potentially anxiety-ridden exchange. Where once many of us only despised voicemails, now the entire process of putting a device up to our ear and speaking with someone in real-time has gotten a bad rap. There’s even a Wikipedia page specifically dedicated to telephone phobia.
Not surprisingly, psychologists attribute some of this newfound social anxiety to the rise in text communication. Despite our phones being omnipresent, we tap out most of our correspondence. It makes sense: Why worry about painful silences, fumbling for the right word, or unplanned tangents derailing a conversation when you could craft, edit, and rewrite the perfect message?
“Anxiety over the prospect of talking on the phone has increased as our culture has moved away from verbal communications and in the direction of texting, emailing, social media comments, and other written communications,” says Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University and author of the book How to Be Yourself. “The method of typing as opposed to talking is really different because when you text or email or post a comment, you have time to think and edit and perfect. That's really different than face-to-face conversation where it happens in real time and, if you make a mistake, it's out there.”
Hendriksen says that uncertainty is at the root of all anxieties, and phone calls are full of uncertainty. When you talk with someone in person, you have nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language to draw from. You can tell if their attention is wandering or if they’re genuinely interested in what you’re saying. It’s also clearer when someone is about to finish speaking so you can respond without accidentally interrupting them.
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In person, you know the context of what someone is doing before you launch into a conversation. When you stop by a coworker’s cubicle to ask them a question, you can quickly see whether they’re busy. When you call someone, you have no idea what they’re doing. With texts or email, you typically don’t anticipate an immediate response, so the person can reply at their own pace. In comparison, cold calling someone seems as rude as showing up at their house unannounced.
Fears around talking on the phone are generally more common in people who have other types of social anxiety, Hendriksen says, but they can also arise from a bad experience. Maybe you had a phone interview that went poorly or got rejected when you called to ask someone on a date. Hendriksen says you may start to associate the phone with feeling incompetent or embarrassed, so you avoid making calls to prevent feeling that way again. The problem is, the more you avoid talking on the phone, the worse your anxiety around it gets.
This discomfort is also more common in younger generations who didn’t grow up with a landline as their only form of communication, and so have less practice making calls. The dance of talking over one another followed by long pauses and “oh no, you go first” is unfamiliar, and so it can feel intimidating.
“Because [the younger generations] are less practiced, there's more uncertainty” around talking on the phone, which can lead to more anxiety, Hendriksen says. “If you don't have the experience under your belt of making hundreds of phone calls, then you don't have the evidence to be able to predict what will happen.” So how can you get over it?
“The intervention is ultimately to face your fear and practice the thing that makes you anxious,” says David Shanley, a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders. “So, talking on the phone, or finding opportunities to call a friend or family member instead of texting them. Call somebody to ask them out on a date. Call somebody to have a difficult conversation.”
Shanley says it can also be helpful to “get into more of a relaxed mindset or body state as you’re going into the threatening or anxiety-inducing situation” by doing some quick relaxation and breathing exercises.
Finally, he says you have to confront what thoughts are playing into your fears. “What are you actually fearing about being on the phone? Is it ‘I'm going to freeze up’ or ‘I'm going to sound like an idiot’ or ‘You’re going to think I'm stupid.’ Talking about those fears and those thoughts, those things that you're afraid of, is a move towards approaching and accepting them instead of avoiding them.”
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