If you have a fear of talking on the phone, you’re not alone. The fear of making and receiving phone calls is common enough to have its own name: phone phobia (also called telephone phobia or telephobia). There can be various reasons why a person might be afraid of phone calls. For example, some develop the fear after having a negative experience over a call, like a breakup or a bad medical diagnosis. Often however, telephone phobia is due to social anxiety.
“Social anxiety” and “phone phobia” might feel like strong words for an aversion to to talking on the phone. You might think: doesn’t everyone dislike talking on the phone? Isn’t that why text and email were invented? However, social anxiety affects people in different ways: sometimes a socially anxious person can have no problem talking to people at a bar but can feel extremely stressed about speaking to someone over the phone. Phone calls are an essential part of our lives: calling the repairman to fix a leak, the doctor’s office to schedule a checkup, or mom to catch up all involve picking up the telephone. If you go to great lengths to avoid phone calls (even from friends!) or feel extremely anxious when you’re on calls, you might be struggling with social anxiety.
Is your phone phobia due to social anxiety?
Social anxiety is when you’re so worried about being judged by others that important things in your life become hard. People often think social anxiety is just a feeling, but it actually has four components: thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviors. If your fear of phone calls is due to social anxiety, you might experience these signs and symptoms:
- Thoughts: You’ll have negative thoughts about how you sound or what the other person is thinking, like “I’m going to sound stupid” or “They’re annoyed I called.”
- Feelings: You’ll feel emotions like dread, terror, or panic–sometimes even at just the thought of making a call.
- Physical sensations: You’ll notice bodily sensations like nausea, dry mouth, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, etc.
- Behavior: You’ll do things to avoid talking on the phone. For example, you might put off scheduling appointments, always let calls go to the machine, or ask other people to answer the phone for you.
Common situations that might make you nervous include:
- Phone interviews
- Calling a customer service line with a problem or question
- Ordering food on the phone
- Calling friends or family “just to talk”
- Answering unexpected phone calls
Why do phone calls seem scary?
Talking on the phone is a unique kind of social interaction that can in some ways be even more daunting than in-person conversation. In person, you pick up a lot of emotional cues by watching someone’s body language. But on the phone, you lose those small gestures (like a smile) that subtly give you encouragement during the conversation. Similarly, because you know the other person can’t see you, you might be extra self-conscious about how your voice sounds. Socially anxious people often worry the other person can hear the nervousness in their voice.
The increasing popularity of texting has also contributed to a phobia of talking on the phone. A growing number of people, especially millennials, prefer texting to calling. According to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center, about a-third of Americans report preferring texts to calls, with 18-24 year olds sending the most texts per day (Twice as much as the average 25-34 year old, and 23 times the amount send by those 65 and older). People who mostly communicate over text or email worry about having less time to craft their message on a call, and also fear they’ll be bothering someone if they call because “no one calls each other anymore.”
How to overcome your fear of talking on the phone
If social anxiety is making it hard for you to speak on the phone, here are a few strategies to help you cope:
- Remember pauses are a normal part of conversation. People often worry they won’t know what to say when a friend or family member calls “just to catchup,” and fear long, awkward silences. Remember that pauses are part of the natural ebb and flow of conversation and often don’t last as long as you think. Next time you notice an “awkward pause,” try counting in your head to see how long it lasts—usually it’s just a few seconds!
- Remind yourself businesses want you to call. Many people are afraid to call customer service lines, order food online, or schedule appointments because they fear they’re “bothering” the other person on the line. However, remember these numbers exist because they want you to call (to get your business)! Also, since it’s the person’s job to answer the phone, they might enjoy talking to and helping people.
- Know you’re not expected to be perfect. Many people worry they’ll ramble or be inarticulate because they don’t have time to craft “perfect” responses on the phone. Remember you’re not expected to know the answer to every question immediately, and one advantage of talking on the phone over text or email is that both you and the other person can ask questions in the moment to clarify.
- Recall successful past phone calls. Phone calls can be especially scary when they impact your career. If you’re worried you’ll “freeze up” during phone interviews or calls with potential customers, try this exercise: before the call, recall other times you’ve successfully made a similar call, and remind yourself there’s no reason this time will be different.
- Set goals and take small steps to confront your fear. One of the best ways to overcome your phone fear is to face it. Start small, with types of calls that only make you a little nervous, and gradually work your way up to calls that seem scarier. (Note: what makes a call more or less intimidating will vary by person: spend some time reflecting on how variables like length, purpose, or the person you’re talking to affect how anxious you feel, and plan what calls to slowly confront based on this knowledge). For example, let’s say you know you feel more nervous talking to someone on the phone if you don’t know them well or at all. You might gradually work your way up to talking to strangers by first calling a close friend, then calling a friend you’re less close to, then an acquaintance, and finally a customer service line or other number where you don’t know the person answering. With each successive call, you’ll grow more comfortable and learn that the anticipation is often worse than the actual call. Make sure to set measurable goals to mark your progress: for example, your goal could be to call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while and learn three new things about them or to call a customer service line and ask one question.
Conquer social anxiety and fear of talking on the phone
Being afraid to speak on the phone can have serious consequences: you might pass on a dream job, avoid scheduling necessary doctor’s appointments, or hurt relationships with your friends and family all to avoid talking on the phone. If fear of talking on the phone has impacted your life, you might consider getting help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the leading treatment for social anxiety and is proven to help socially anxious people overcome their phone phobia. It works by teaching you to understand the root causes behind your phone fear, and guiding you to slowly confront your fear in a series of structured steps like those described above. If you’re interested in trying CBT, learn about the different treatment options you have.