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Could Your Fear of Talking on the Phone be Social Anxiety?

square-phone-phobiaIf 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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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Comments (12)

  1. Thanks for putting up this problem. Can I just say that phone phobia extremely difficult to fight. Years of medication, counseling, group therapy, etc. I myself still struggle like hell trying to adapt to the usual communication ways of society. Sometimes I feel cornered and angry when the time comes that I “must” make or take that phone call. I’ll put it off as long as I can for days, sometimes months. It’s torture!

  2. This was extremely helpful for me!! I have struggled with social anxiety and telephone phobia for as long as I can remember. After reading this article, I used those techniques and worked up the courage to set up my job interview. Words cannot describe how thankful I am to have read this.

  3. This really helped me understand that what I have is an actually thing and I’m not alone. I’ve actually had anxiety since before I can remember, I just never saw the signs. I took the accessment, and I think may need to take it again. I said my number one problem is being the center of attention. I feel like it is being criticized. I have always worried about rejection and people criticizing me. For some reason, constructive criticism just comes across as critism and rejection to me. I definitely worry about phone calls. Another method I found to cope with making phone calls, especially important ones is to have someone you are close to near you, just simply touching your hand or their hand on your knee. I found that it calms me down a bit. Also if you have the time, write down a simple outline of the questions you need to ask. When I call to check on applications, I write down “Hello, this is Amber, I’m calling to check on my application, any news?” and I write down a couple responses that could happen like “Let’s set up an interview” and I’ll put the time I’m available. It helps me not to freak out as much and also the conversation goes by quicker. I can’t always do this, but when I can it helps. I still might look into the therapy though, because despite me making the phone calls I have, they don’t get any easier.

  4. I don’t like using the phone full stop. Close family is ok, colla guess or friends d’s at work is ok if I need / want something specific. I prefer to call than be called.
    My heart skips a beat if I receive a call I’m not expecting (unless close family) especially withheld or private numbers.
    I also really hate using the phone in frot of others. I think Its about being overheard and judged. I always thought I don’t care what people think but I must because I always fea I will make myself look stupid!
    I feel a bit ridiculous and do put off calls sometimes. I’m most worried about using the phone for work and saying the wrong g thing/ not k wing something especially when being overheard!

  5. I struggle with this and have for years. I was a pilot with a major airline and they had a very cost-effective but unsafe practice of calling pilots in the middle of a sleep cycle to go fly to South America destinations on a moment’s notice. With no time to prepare for the trip and the “jump in the car and race to the airport” was a horrible strain when all I cared about was safety of my passengers and crew. I always felt that when the phone rang, all my concerns were for naught – answer the phone or lose my job. I sometimes would stop on the side of the road and pull out charts and study the upcoming route, weather, and particulars. The company had a time limit on how long I had to get to the airport – 2 hours. When it takes 1 hour to pre-flight the aircraft and get it ready, that’s not enough time. Often they would pre-board and all these disgruntled passengers were waiting. This put even more pressure to hurry and push off the gate. Some pilots were immune to the inherent dangers of not preparing adequately.. they just blew off the risk. I, myself, couldn’t do that. I was a “preparer” — be prepared and “haste makes waste” is an understatement in the world of flying big jets. Lots of close calls happened to others — not to me. But, the whole experience of doing this for YEARS being on-call (“Reserve” the airlines call it) gave me a real phobia about phones. Not all airlines have such a terrible RESERVE system. Some are actually quite easy. In fact, ours was okay at one time and was safe. But when the “bean counters” stuck their fingers into the “flight management” operation, the whole thing turned to brown. After 20 years of major airlines flying, retired 10 years, I still have a total phobia about phones. I don’t answer them unless from my wife or son… Otherwise, leave a message.. I will reply with email or text. THANK YOU HARVARD BEAN COUNTERS. YOU GUYS REALLY DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING. BOTTOM LINES — GOOD FOR YOU.

  6. This is actually a big problem for me. I have dyslexic friends who hate texting and always try to call me. They never believed this was actually a real thing and thought I was just trying to avoid talking to them. It’s horrible.

    • Hi Sophia! I’m so sorry you’re going through this too! My best friend is pissed at me right now because I didn’t answer the phone! Honestly I’ve been working on it with her especially. I promised to answer her calls if she called my cell. But this time she didn’t. I think she may have called my house phone, because I didn’t get any messages.
      Anyway I just wanted to let you know you’re not alone!
      —Beth

  7. In one case I know of I think the problem is more akin to passive aggression (like being late all the time). Instead of a ‘fear’, it’s a passive aggressive act, like saying, “I’ll be darned if I’m going to answer your call!” That’s the impression I get in this one case at least.

  8. I’ve gotten much better over the years at having no serious problem with calling certain friends, acquaintances, and work-related people on the phone…but I still have serious problems summing up the courage to call certain people on the phone, for fear of saying odd things during the conversation, annoying them by calling them at a bad time, etc. This article summed it up brilliantly…phone to phone convos have no facial cues to better guide a convo in a decent direction…if there is a pause on the other end, I often mentally go straight to “oh crap, that person is thinking ‘WTF’ and I’ve really put them off”. I may or may not be mainly referring to members of the opposite gender who I have strong feelings for, LOL. A lot of it is just self-talk, I guess. But it’s difficult to just “turn off” anxiety.

  9. As someone whose brain and mouth don’t always connect well, and i stutter and stumble occassionally, especially when I’m nervous, talking is already a chore. I’m also pretty sure I have hearing problems, as I have caught myself in many situations where I can’t lip read like usual (something i unconsciously do) for whatever reason, and I can’t understand a word the person said to me. So i cant hear them clearly without seeing their faces, and I get nervous, so then I stammer, and… yeesh i hate phone calls. Plus, unexpected calls make my heart race. I hate being called into work, as I struggle with last minute changes to my schedule. Introvert problems.

    A diagnosis on my hearing and speech problems would be a big help, but thats in process, and who knows how long that will take?

  10. I would add a tip I use when I have to make a call at work and don’t feel like it : I take a paper and jot points on what all I need to say, like a rehearsed speech. Sometimes I even write the opening line, name and designation of person I’m talking to, etc. It helps take the initial “God I don’t know what to say” feeling away, and I don’t actually need to look at the paper once I’m on the call.

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