A person with long, dark hair, a hooked nose, and a soft chin looks in shock at a telephone, the cord of which is wrapped around them. Blasting out of the phone are the words “How To Get Over Your Phone Anxiety Enough To Make The Calls You Need To Make.”
Saul Freedman-Lawson

How to Make a Phone Call

If just... picking up and dialing fills you with dread, here are some ways to make it suck a little less.

So many people have phone anxiety, including most of everyone I like. Strangely, of all my various anxieties and neuroses, I have conquered making phone calls—in fact, I have somehow become the one among my friends who will happily make a call for someone, no worries. 

But a lot of folks find the phone stressful, aggravating, anxiety-producing, and generally just a bad neighborhood in their brains. They—maybe you?—experience phone calls as an ALL CAPS communication that demands their attention when someone else wants it and never lets them engage at your own pace. Texting or emailing ahead of time helps, (“Hi, can we have a call at 3 p.m, on Tuesday?”) because it reduces the demanding feeling, and/or the anxiety that someone else might find you demanding, but it’s not always possible. 


Also, on the phone it's hard to hear. People mumble and there’s always noise or yelling in the background, and accents are harder on the phone and hold music is an absolute horror and also, the irony: Your $600 tiny pocket computer, which is powerful enough to edit videos and render 4K images, isn’t, um, very good as a phone. The sound is tinny and distant except when it’s suddenly *so loud, right in your ear* (unless you pay an extra $250 for the special headphones; do not get me started).

There are some upsides to the phone, in my experience—I like hearing the voices of my friends, there’s more opportunity for laughter, and if a non-social call gets complicated, I can sometimes get better help by asking questions like “If you were in this situation, what would you do?” Unfortunately, you have to actually use the phone more often to enjoy these benefits. Since I can’t just make your calls for you (though, sincerely, I love to be helpful and I wish I could), I thought we might try to unpack some ways to make it suck less to be on the phone. (With thanks to everyone on my social media who generously shared their phone anxieties with me.)

1. There’s a lot less judgment than you may imagine; we’re all weird (especially right now).

The caption reads “1. There’s a lot less judgement than you may imagine: we’re all weird, (especially right now).” A thin person with dark curly hair, big glasses, and tattoos fiddles anxiously with a piece of string while making a phone call inside a pillow fort. On the other side of the image, a small fat person with a small beard holds a phone between their ear and shoulder while carrying a child (both the adult and the child are wearing sorcerer's hats).

Saul Freedman-Lawson

People’s number one concern about making calls is that they’re not going to do it correctly, somehow. That they’ll talk too much or not enough or they’ll interrupt or they’ll pause for too long or whatever, in the absence of visual cues to help them. That’s a fair concern, but remember—the other person can’t see you or your visual cues either. You’re both going to be a little weird. Everyone is a little weird on the phone. It’s honestly fine.


Some of this weirdness crops up because a lot of us only have negative associations with the phone. It’s mostly bad news and bill collectors, these days, plus maybe your Aunt Petunia… of course you get anxious. When’s the last time something nice happened for you by phone? So be gentle with yourself. It makes sense that you feel a little spurt of adrenaline when you hear a phone ring. 

But also, friend: You’re doing your best here. Give yourself some credit for your past attempts and your future bravery, and then read on.

2. Pick a face to talk to.

The caption reads “2. Pick a face to talk to.” A fat person in a flannel shirt with a short, coily fade is holding a phone out in front of them as they look at a picture of Lizzo. “Hey there,” they say.

Saul Freedman-Lawson

Yes, I fully realize this sounds ridiculous. But somehow, it works. Just talking into the void feels much weirder than having someone to speak to, even if “someone” is a little cat face I jotted on a napkin. My preferred situation is to put a face I feel friendly about on my computer screen to speak to. For social calls, sometimes I put up a photo of the person I’m actually phoning; for non-social calls my favorites are Lizzo or Stanley Tucci because they add a little spice to the situation... but honestly, anyone works, including your dog, an alien you draw on an index card, or anything else with a face. 

(I know, but try it. Strangely reassuring.)

3. Write a script. (It’s only three lines and I’ll do two of them for you.

The caption reads “3. Write a script: it’s three lines and I’ll do two of them for you.” A thin person dressed as Columbia from the Rocky Horror Picture Show walks across a stage, talking into a phone. “Hi/Hello/Howdy!” they say. Their second speech bubble reads “[What you need to discuss]” and the third reads “Can you help me with that?/ Is now a good time for you to talk?”

Saul Freedman-Lawson

Good news: you are ONE SENTENCE AWAY from making this phone call. All you need to make a phone call, besides probably a few deep breaths and a handy copy of any relevant documents, is a list with three things on it: 


1. Hi/Hello/Howdy

2. [what you need to discuss]

3. Can you help me with that?/Is now a good time for you to talk?

Sentence #2? It’s literally just why you’re calling. Before you make the call, pretend you’re telling someone what you need to call about and write that down. Or, for an end-run-around-your-brain strategy, text it to someone (or to yourself)—“I have to call Verizon about my payment not showing up on my bill,” “I have to call my Great Aunt Petunia and wish her a happy birthday!”—and then write that down. (This works well because you’re already used to expressing your thoughts by text so the pathway is easier. In other news, brains are wild.)

The first and third things are basically always the same: A way of saying hello so you don’t sound awkward or rude, and a check-in to be sure you’re speaking with the right person before you do too much. If it’s a call to a friend and there’s nothing “to discuss,” you can just say “I have a wild story to tell you,” or even simply “I’ve been thinking about you and I wanted to just catch up.” 

So first, figure out your #1 and #3. Decide on your own, or feel free to use mine:

1: Oh, hi. 

3 (non-social): Can you help me with that?

3 (social): Is now a good time for you to talk?

There are others that work, but these basics are fine, and you can use the same ones every time; no one will notice. Now you know what to say and don’t have to worry you’re just babbling. A+, carry on.


4. Plan ahead for troubleshooting so you don’t just freeze.

The caption reads “4. Plan ahead for troubleshooting…” On one side of the image, a small, fat blond man with a moustache deflects the words “How can I help you ma’am?” with a shield reading “I’m sorry, who?... Oh I got confused because you said ma’am so I wasn’t sure who you meant.” On the other side, a fat niqabi power chair user in a patterned jacket deflects the barely legible words “Good morning! How are you today?” with a shield reading “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. Can you please go where the cell signal is stronger?”

Saul Freedman-Lawson

The caption reads “... so you don’t just freeze.” On one side, a thin person with long box braids wearing a trans symbol necklace, with their cane next to the chair they’re sitting in, deflects a speech bubble mostly hidden by clouds with a shield reading “Ugh, sorry, I missed that last bit. Do you mind repeating it?” On the other, a thin person with long dark hair and a light moustache drinks tea as they deflect the words “Have you made a choice?” with a shield reading “Thanks for this information. Let me think it over for a moment.”

Saul Freedman-Lawson

Things may sometimes go wrong on a call. Just like with everything else that’s anxiety-producing, the more prepared you are for an eventuality, the less it will stress you out if or when it happens. So plan ahead what you’ll say or do if things go wrong, but also: Figure out what amount of unpleasantness is simply too much—for you, for today. If you have to bail out, then you do, Don’t let it ruin your day. Give yourself credit for breaking the seal and try again later or tomorrow. 

But some common things people may want to prepare for:


Ugh. I can’t do anything about the stress part of this, because it’s just so aggravating, but when someone misgenders me I like to go with “I’m sorry, who?” and when they repeat themselves, say “Oh, I got confused because you said ma’am so I wasn’t sure who you meant.” Sometimes people apologize and sometimes they double down, which means I have to say: “Sir. I’m a man, and you can call me Sir. Ma’am is not appropriate.” (And if you have to deal with the thing where they doubt you’re the account holder because your voice sounds too-some-other-gender, I would just like to say that I think a piñata in the shape of a bank logo sounds like a swell DIY project.)

Poor connection

Mobile phones and call centers are both terrible for being able to hear what someone is saying, and in combination they’re disastrous. You can say, at any point, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. Can you please turn up your volume/go where it’s quieter/go where the cell signal is stronger?” You can try calling from a landline, if you have access to one, or asking a caller you can’t hear well to call you back at a Google Voice number which in my experience have considerably better sound quality if you have access to wifi. Also, if you simply can’t hear what the other person is saying, you can just say so and then hang up and call back. 


Your brain just glitches

Suddenly you have no idea what’s going on because your brain wandered away into a meadow while the person on the other end was talking? Only you can’t rewind, because this is real time? Don’t try to forge bravely on. Just go with “Ugh, sorry, I missed that last bit. Do you mind repeating it?” or even “I got distracted for a second; can I ask for an instant replay of the last thing you said?” 

Or maybe you understand what’s happening just fine, but there are too many choices and you can’t figure out what to do in the moment. You can often ask for information to be emailed to you so you can consider and respond.

If you know this is a common thing for you, take notes! When you reach the decision point, try saying, “Thanks for this information. Let me think it over for a moment,” and then… just take a moment. You can feel free to hum a little song or stir a cup or make some minor noises so the person knows you’re there, but know there’s definitely time for you to just quietly consider. No one’s running late to perform lifesaving operations on penguins today; it’s fine to take the time you need.

One thing to note: People who work in call centers have let me know that if there’s 15 seconds or more of silence on the phone, they might get in trouble. That’s why they’re always prompting you for an answer. So if you’re on a customer service call, either say “hmmmm” or “well…” every little while or just say your thoughts out loud: “Well, if I buy the all-inclusive package, it’s the same cost as two visits per month. Let’s look at the calendar, OK…” They will find this actually helpful and not annoying. Too stressful? Just say thanks and call back when you’ve decided.


5. Crack the code for “I am done talking now.”

The caption reads “5. Crack the code for “I am done talking now.” A hand with short, striped nails turns the dial on a combination lock. Various points on the dial read “Can’t wait to see you next week!” “Let me let you go,” “...All right!” “I won’t keep you!” “I wish I could talk longer too, but I have to hang up now. This was so nice! Take care! Bye!” “Thanks for talking, I really enjoyed it,” and “I’m so sorry, but I have to go.”

Saul Freedman-Lawson

For many people with phone anxiety, picking up the phone and speaking with a person is the hardest part. But it can be just as anxiety-producing at the end of the call, as you find yourself thinking, Am I talking too much? Does this person want to get me off the phone? or maybe, I want to hang up now… Can I just say ‘OK bye’?

Very reasonable! Even the most direct communicators in the world don’t typically say, “I would like to get off the phone now.“ But there are generally understood ways to communicate that sentiment and wrap the call up. They can feel a bit like codes, but no stress: I have the keys, and I am happy to share. 

You can say any of these if you need to, especially on a social call. (Non-social calls are easier in this way; when the business is done you can say thank you and hang up.) Some good options:

  • “Thanks so much for talking, I really enjoyed it.” (Past tense! you are done now!)
  • “I won’t keep you,” or “Let me let you go.” (“I’m ready to get off the phone.”)
  • Any version of a light sigh and “All right!” (“I don’t know what to say but I feel ready to end.”)
  • References to settled future plans, like “Can’t wait to see you next week.”

If you’ve tried all these and Great Aunt Petunia is still telling you about how the Nash Rambler she’s been rebuilding took 2nd place at the classic car show, you have my permission to simply say: “I’m so sorry, but I have to go.” If they carry on talking (“Sure, of course, I know I get so excited to talk about cars, I know rebuilding a clutch isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I’m finding I really…”) then you say:


“I wish I could talk longer too, but I have to hang up now. This was so nice! Take care! Bye!”

Pause just long enough for them to say good-bye. But regardless of whether they do or not, pretend they did and hang up. Compassionately, lovingly recognizing that they probably also have many phone feelings, you can manage your own boundaries and just… hang up. Good-bye!

Two last notes:

First: Making phone calls is a skill that will improve with practice. The more you do it, the better you get at it. If you need to ease in, try something low-stakes like calling a grocery store to ask if they stock a specific item or a library to ask when storytime is (“Oh, hi. I’m calling to find out when storytime is. Can you help me with that?”). But learning to make a phone call without feeling like you’re going to stress yourself inside out is essentially like learning to play a video game: You navigate through the first cave… and then you die. Next time you get all the way to the ledge, and… then you die. But you got further! This is the same—with practice, you’ll improve.

But second: Friend, you know yourself. If you simply cannot, if these urgent calls are simultaneously critical to complete and impossible to accomplish, that is also OK. You can accept this news and send back that side order of feeling bad about yourself. Perhaps among your friends and acquaintances you have a weirdo like me who will make your calls for you. In fact, maybe there’s something they find exhausting or difficult that you can do pretty easily, and you can trade. (I am personally prepared to do a lot for someone who will wait on a line for me—I loathe it with every fiber of my being.) 

Don’t get stuck with a worsening situation because you think you should be able to make a call but you just can’t, and definitely, absolutely don’t waste one second beating yourself up about it. Be strategic instead, clever clogs. Harness your other talents—you definitely have them!—and figure out how to swap or outsource tasks. If you can help someone else at the same time and feed two birds with one scone, all the better. We’re all just doing our best, and that includes you, so try to avoid the shame spiral and congratulate yourself instead when you strategize for your own success.

S. Bear Bergman and Saul Freedman-Lawson are the author and illustrator of the new book Special Topics in Being a Human: A Queer and Tender Guide to Things I've Learned the Hard Way about Caring For People, Including Myself.