Why does the phone strike fear into the hearts of so many of us?

Dec 06, 2021

10 mins

Why does the phone strike fear into the hearts of so many of us?
Gabrielle Predko

Journaliste - Welcome to the Jungle

Your hands are clammy, your heart is racing and you have a lump in your throat. No, you’re not in love, you are experiencing phone jitters. Let’s be honest: few people say they’re completely at ease on the phone. Everyone’s got one or two colleagues who will happily break the relative calm of an open-plan office to put their feet up on their desk and loudly make phone calls. Rest assured, they’re in the minority. According to a study by Faceforbusiness (FFB), a telephone answering service, out of 500 participants, 62% said they felt anxious before answering a phone call. That fear seems to be even stronger among millennials. Of the generation born with an iPhone in their hands, 76% said they experience dread on hearing the phone ring. But the professional world isn’t ready to do without the telephone just yet whether it’s for a job interview or a client meeting. So it’s better to be comfortable using a phone, especially in this era of lockdowns and remote work. With this in mind, we asked: Why do some people hate phones so much? What’s going on in their heads before they have to make a call? And how can they overcome this phobia? This is what we learned.

Why are we so afraid of the big bad phone call?

Fear of messing up when speaking off the cuff

Making calls often means improvising. It’s rarely possible to plan out an entire conversation. So we fear being taken by surprise, suffering awkward silences, or stammering out our answers and looking a bit foolish. According to that same FFB study, those are the primary reasons for pre-call anxiety. Lea, a student, has experienced this: “Before making a call, I often feel a kind of ‘stage fright’. I practice what I’m going to say over and over again if I have a specific goal, like making an appointment, for example. I’m really afraid of stammering, not knowing what to say, and making it awkward.” Unlike text messages, email, or even voice memos, the phone call is one of the last actions out there that require you to think on your feet, which is something that many people find all the more stressful in an open-plan office. Margaux, a community manager, understands this feeling. She says: “I started out my career in sales, and that means having to pick up the phone regularly to find potential clients. But I never imagined it would be so difficult. I was always afraid of saying something stupid, that my colleagues or my manager would hear me and judge me. I would even make calls in the company bathroom, or wait for everyone to leave in the evening so there’d be fewer people around.”

A lack of visual cues

It’s well known that body language is key to communication. When on the phone, however, it’s more difficult to discern the attitude of the person you are speaking to and to get your message across. So the fear is that you might have to deal with misunderstandings. “When I used to communicate with clients and resolve problems for them remotely, for example, I was always afraid that they would doubt my skills,” says Margaux. “If I told them I was going to look into their issue and ask around, they couldn’t see me doing it and thus couldn’t see if I was taking the situation seriously, and that always made me very uncomfortable.” Alice, a 25-year-old content manager, feels the same way. “In real life, smiling and using my hands to talk are the core of how I communicate. I had some sales jobs where I had to approach potential clients by phone and, without those elements of body language, I was really afraid of coming across as cold. So I tried to make up for it by chattering on a bit more to sound friendly, but, in fact, it felt like I was just making it more awkward or that I just sounded foolish.”

Under time pressure

Without visual cues, it’s hard to know whether or not you’re bothering someone. That pressure can be unnerving. Since you don’t want to waste the other person’s time, you try to be quick, get right to the point, and not make any mistakes – but that only increases your stress levels. “When I make a call, I never know how to go about it,” says Alice. “I don’t want to seem impolite, so I make small talk at the beginning, but I don’t know when I should get down to business so as not to waste someone’s time. At the same time, when I do get to the point quickly, without spending too much time making small talk, I feel that it sounds like I’m actually really interested.” That may be because when you make a professional phone call, it’s rarely just to catch up.

Of course, dealing with all of this unpleasantness can be even more frightening when our colleagues are there or our boss is listening in. This often only increases the feeling of stress before and during a call.

The root cause

At this point, you have to ask yourself where phone phobia comes from. Why do some people have it and others don’t? To understand why, you have to dive into the psychology and medical language.

A result of trauma?

Psychologist Vanessa Lauraire says, “The reasons for this phobia are diverse, but often the fear of phone calls is a form of social phobia, to varying degrees. It’s an anxiety disorder.” Making phone calls can be a source of anxiety for people who are already prone to being anxious, but that’s not all. “There are a lot of phobias that can be explained by traumatic situations that person has experienced,” Lauraire says. In this case, it’s not necessarily an act of violence, but an occurrence that left a lasting impression, even subconsciously. For example: some bad news you got over the phone, a conversation that went sour over the course of a phone call, or even calling your boyfriend or girlfriend as a pre-teen but having to talk to their mom first. “This traumatic event makes the person associate making a call with stress,” says Lauraire. “Whether you’re making or getting a call, you think to yourself that there’s a potential danger, and that’s when your reptilian brain – which controls your survival instinct – kicks in. The possible reactions in that moment are: inhibition, fight or flight.” It’s no surprise then that you might stammer or hide like Margaux. Or that you might procrastinate to avoid the stress, like Alice. “Sometimes, I’d make an appointment for a call at a specific time with a client, and even then, I’d put it off in some way,” says Alice. “Even subconsciously, I’d figure out a way to postpone the meeting, saying my workload was too heavy, for example. Or if my client forgot to call me at the agreed time, I wouldn’t call them instead.”

Are phones a personal thing?

If you really think about it, it’s a pretty contradictory fear. Most people have their phones on them everywhere they go: trips, nights out, family get-togethers. Yet they dread phone calls, which was – as you may recall – the primary function of the telephone. And what if that is the problem? Lauraire says, “Phones have become an important part of our lives. It’s a sort of extension of our own body. It’s an object that has become a part of our intimate lives. So a phone call can definitely feel like it’s a sort of intrusion into that.” This analysis rings true for Lea, who’s prone to social anxiety. “Whenever I get an unscheduled call, I feel like it’s interrupting whatever I’m doing at that moment,” she says. “It feels like an (involuntary, of course) micro-aggression and I feel backed against a wall. Luckily, I don’t have major anxiety when it comes to speaking over the phone anymore, nor do I have panic attacks anymore. But I always feel deeply uncomfortable whenever I get an unplanned call, even when it’s from my family. I’ll sometimes compare an unplanned call to a surprise visit to my house because it feels to me like a violation of my privacy or my peace of mind, even if I know that wasn’t the person’s intention.”

Phone calls and stuttering

Those who stutter are particularly prone to suffer from fear of the telephone, according to Isabelle Faivre, a speech therapist. “For adults who stutter, the telephone is almost always a major source of anxiety, both at work and in their social lives. And it is important to know that there is as much stuttering as there are people who stutter,” she says. This trouble speaking affects roughly three million Americans and it takes several forms. It may be “clonic” stuttering, which is the repetition of a syllable, or “tonic” stuttering, which is getting stuck on one word, or even a combination of these two. There are also two lesser-known forms: stuttering by inhibition, when someone gets stuck or draws a blank when caught off guard by the person they’re speaking to, and stuttering by substitution, when someone anticipates getting stuck on a word and they decide to replace the problematic word with another one. In the latter two cases, the problem isn’t as obvious because their speech is fluid, but it’s still an issue for the sufferer.

Clearly a stutter can affect people to varying degrees and phone calls are often a source of stress. “Oftentimes, the person will think about trying to formulate what they want to say in their head, which isn’t helpful because they can get even more lost in the conversation,” Faivre says. “On top of that, without non-verbal communication, it’s difficult for the person who stutters to explain the issue and figure out the attitude of the person they’re speaking to. It’s a difficult exercise.”

How do you get over your fear of the phone?

Being afraid of the phone can be a setback in the professional world, whether you need to use it for job interviews or for making calls to clients or colleagues. So how do you get rid of it?

1. Practice

It’s not a secret. The best way to get over a fear is to confront it. Confidence comes from practice. With experience, you’ll get used to the situation and be calmer when dealing with it, according to Faivre. “The more you do it, the less it scares you. It’s like dealing with a fear of spiders. You start by drawing a spider, then looking at a photo of a spider, then a toy spider, then a dead spider, then a live spider, etc. With phone calls, we call the patient over the phone, practice a bit, get them to prepare for it by working on their breathing.” The longer you procrastinate, the longer it takes to fix the problem. So try to make calls whenever you can, even in your personal life.

2. Keep it in perspective

In the end, what is a five-second pause during a call in the space of a whole life? What’s a phone call compared to all the other hardships you’ve overcome in your life? Faivre says it’s important to take a step back when dealing with the situation. “You have to remind yourself that even if you stutter, it’s not the end of the world and that you can do it. But you obviously have to do some work on yourself,” she says. This is advice she usually gives to patients affected by a stutter, but it can work for everyone. Lauraire says, “It’s important to downplay the moment and be practical about it. Ask yourself whether you’ll remember this in ten years’ time, or if it will still have an impact on your life. I think you have to stick to the facts and keep yourself grounded.”

3. Own up to it when you mess up

Did you stutter? Did you not have all the answers to all their questions? Did you say something dumb? Sometimes it’s better to own up fully to these unpleasant moments to ease the mood. “One piece of advice I’ve been given that has helped me a lot is to own the fact that I don’t know the answer to a question someone’s asked,” says Margaux. “If I don’t have the answer, I’ll tell them outright that I’ll ask my manager or that I’ll find out and call them back. They generally take it well.” Alice adds, “I think laughter and self-deprecation are totally appropriate over the phone. If I mess up or say something that doesn’t make any sense, I’ll laugh about it myself. It puts the other person at ease and gives them the idea that I’m confident, even if that’s not the case at all.”

4. Plan ahead, but not too much

Making a short list of subjects to speak about before making a call can be useful. That’s what Margaux does. “When I was presenting a product as a salesperson, I had all the necessary tabs on my computer open to be ready and have access to the product descriptions. It was reassuring to know I had everything available there,” she says. Lea used the same technique. “I had several job interviews over the phone, and I would have a notebook where I wrote down all my ideas, answers to possible questions, my best qualities and my skills, and my talking points. It always went really well,” she says.

There is no reason to plan out a speech line by line ahead of time as this might stress you out even more, and make you even more confused. Write down a few key words that will allow you to remember the subjects you want to bring up. You shouldn’t hesitate to come up with a little routine for your calls. “After having made a certain number of calls, I came up with a little reassuring ritual,” says Lea. “I say hello, I ask how the person is doing, whether they prefer being addressed by their first or last name, check that I’m not bothering them, then clearly explain the purpose of my call. I even prepare a few sentences to use if I have any issues. If I notice that there’s an awkward pause after I’ve said something, I follow up by saying ‘Don’t hesitate to let me know if something is unclear to you.’ This all allows me to structure the phone call and be in better control of it.”

5. Talk about it

It always comes back to this: communication is the best way to ease your problems. If phone calls make you uncomfortable, maybe you can speak to your manager about it. That’s what Margaux did. “When I had some pretty cool managers, I let myself talk to them about it and that was really reassuring. They often explained that they’d had the same issue at the start of their careers. I immediately felt less alone. On the other hand, I regret talking about it with some managers I didn’t feel as comfortable with, because after sharing my fears with them, they kept a closer eye on me and that only stressed me out even more. Bad idea,” says Margaux. If you have a stutter, however, you can explain to the person on the other end of the phone that you will have difficulty expressing yourself because of your stutter.

6. Use relaxation exercises

If you need to relax before an important call, do some relaxation exercises, says Lauraire. “Physical relaxation often leads to being relaxed mentally, and vice versa. So you should really pay attention to your body, to yourself, and your feelings, and be in the here and now,” she says. Faivre also recommends this to her patients. “You need to do breathing and relaxation exercises to stay relaxed during your call, remember not to hurry, to pause within your sentences, and take your time.” Obviously, the calmer you are, the easier it will be.

If your fear is impossible to live with, the best solution is to consult a speech therapist if you have a speech disorder, or a psychologist to do more complete work on yourself. There’s no need to worry in any case, few people are very comfortable on the phone, but by practicing, it becomes less intimidating. As for Léa, work often has a lot to do with it: “What really helped me manage my social anxiety, in the broadest sense, and not only on the phone, was my work. Being required to be in a team and having this forced physical proximity was hard, but it was beneficial for me.” Don’t lose hope but do stay strong!

Translated by: Kalin Linsberg

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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