This might sound ridiculous to some, but when I first entered the workforce after school a few years ago, I was absolutely terrified to use the phone.
Prior to getting a job, I used phone calls for interviews here and there and for talking to my grandmother. Now, I was expected to call dozens of strangers every day like it was no big deal.
I’m not the only one, either. When surveyed, 81% of Millennials said they got anxious before making phone calls. Zoomers and Millennials alike hate talking on the phone – some even call it phone phobia – but why?
Are We Lazy, Entitled, or Just Anxious?
Phones are fixtures of our modern-day life. Almost every adult has one and is constantly on them anyway, so where’s the disconnect between constantly having a phone in your possession and operating it for its intended use? A UK-based market research company found that while an estimated 76% of adults own a phone, 25% say they refuse to use it for making phone calls or accepting them.
Most experts – psychologists and mental health professionals, that is – agree that it has to do with anxiety, specifically social anxiety. Introverted personalities are the most obvious example of those who are especially susceptible to this, but others say that the uncertainty of what’s on the other end is really what makes them avoid making calls or taking them altogether. This leads to phone phobia, also known as telephobia.
The uncertainty of what’s on the other end is really what makes us avoid making calls or taking them.
Symptoms of this phobia can range from harmless to pretty severe. While phone phobia manifests for many in using texting as a replacement for phone calls, other individuals might avoid applying for or taking jobs that heavily utilize phone calls, or even avoid contacting their loved ones for fear of how they’ll be perceived over the phone. For those who have to make phone calls as part of their jobs or daily life, they’ll obsess over making calls while avoiding them for as long as they possibly can – or fixate on what they said during a call and what could have been done differently. Sometimes, physical symptoms can develop as well, like difficulty concentrating, trembling or shaking, nausea, and a noticeable increase in heart rate.
One therapist argues that telephobia is largely tied to performance anxiety on a much smaller scale. For many, the uncertainty of a conversation and where it might lead, as well as how the person on the other end views the individual on the call, is enough to completely shut them down.
Phasing Out Phones
Interestingly enough, while those with telephobia would likely say they’d do just about anything to get out of having to take a phone call, we can all agree that communication isn’t going anywhere – it’s just evolving. Phone calls might become obsolete as the years progress (or so many of us are hoping) and technology changes, but there’s no denying that social media use isn’t going anywhere, especially as it becomes more integrated into our daily lives.
Social anxiety aside, many Millennials have apparent common sense objections to phone calls. Talking on the phone in its very nature is kind of a public thing, and many see it as disruptive or just time consuming. For others, they’ve been spoiled by email.
With email and texting, we get to control the tone and the wording of the message.
Email, argues one blogger, has essentially made us bad at talking on the phone. With an email or even a text message, we get to control the tone and the wording of the message, and with read receipts or specific notifications, we can even control letting the other person know when we’ve received their message. With email and other electronic communication, we believe we get to control how we’re perceived and the tone, style, and overall feeling of the message we want to convey. We get to approve the message hundreds of times (if we want) before hitting send. This is why getting an unexpected phone call is so jarring to some of us – when the phone rings and we answer it, there is little to no preparation on our end, and we don’t have as much control as we’d like. Others argue that with improvements being made to smartphones and computers, there isn’t really any need for phone calls these days.
Millennials are known for being entitled, for better or worse, and there’s some of that going on as well. One Millennial writes that with email or texting, the person on the other end gets to respond on their own time. With a phone call, they’re forced to respond on the other person’s time, which to many feels “inconsiderate.” Other surveyed adults referred to phone calls as too time-consuming, with 75% giving that as a reason they would not answer an incoming call. Still others said that texting and other non-verbal forms of communicating allowed them to avoid the awkward parts of conversation, like small talk. The same survey participants (ages 22 to 37) were more likely to take phone calls from co-workers than from friends and family.
Growing Up Is Hard To Do
Like letter writing or basket weaving, there’s a lost art when it comes to talking on the phone, and neither Millennials nor Zoomers are interested in learning it. For as much talk as there is about completely phasing out phone calls in favor of other modes of communication, phone calls still haven’t gone anywhere – yet.
Whether our hesitancy to talk on the phone stems from actual anxiety or just the fear of being inconvenienced, most of us would do well to brush up on our phone etiquette, even if we’d rather avoid the awkward small talk. A few years into my career, I still haven’t gotten over my telephobia 100%, but I no longer run from my voicemails, ignore my notifications, or feel a pit of dread in my stomach when I dial a number. Working from home for many months during lockdown definitely played a part in making me more comfortable with talking on the phone, though like anyone else I still have those “this could have been an email” moments.
Exposure and practice are key.
As with any form of anxiety, mental health professionals agree that exposure and practice are key. When it comes to talking on the phone, planning out the objectives of the call beforehand and setting boundaries – like giving the person on the other end an allotted amount of time for the call – can be simple ways of making sure your train doesn’t derail.
For those struggling with communication – whether it’s in person, over Zoom, or over the phone – Albert Mehrabian, a professor at the University of California, developed the 55-38-7 rule. He argued that effective communication is 55% body language, 38% tone, and 7% content, all of which can be easily changed according to the situation over the phone.
We might wish talking on the phone was on the way out, but we’re not there yet. Until that happens, there’s something to be said for learning how to be engaging over the phone – no matter how terrified we may be.
While we may pride ourselves on the clarity of our emails or the snappiness of our text messages, there’s just as much to learn from hearing someone’s voice on the other end as seeing their email signature. Just because we think phone calls are outdated or “inconvenient” doesn’t mean they’re bad, and who knows, years from now in a brave new world of communication, we might even miss them.
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