science of us

Psychologists Explain Your Phone Anxiety (and How to Get Over It)

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Sure, the voice-calling function on your phone may now be one of the least important things on there — somewhere behind texting, Google, Facebook, etc. — but it’s still not something you can really avoid completely. You can book a restaurant reservation or a doctor’s appointment online, but you need to call when you’re running late. You can email a job application, but then you have to wait for the special type of hell that is the phone interview. You can blanket your social-media accounts in political posts, but they don’t count for much if you don’t contact your elected officials, too.

For some people, that’s no big deal. For others, though, picking up the phone takes a Herculean effort: You rehearse what you have to say a thousand times, you dial with shaky hands, you get a panicky feeling in your chest when you hear a ring on the other end.

Hating the phone doesn’t necessarily mean you have social anxiety — the two often go hand in hand, but some people who are otherwise perfectly fine with social interactions have a deep-seated fear of making or receiving a call. And besides, you’re in good company. There’s not a lot of hard data out there about how many people hate the phone, but research suggests that more are shying away from it: In 2011, a Pew Research group survey found that the average cell-phone owner in the U.S. made or received a little over 12 calls per day; in 2015, a study from consumer-behavior research group Informate put it closer to six. Meanwhile, the internet is now rife with guides specifically for phone-averse people who want to call their representatives.

It seems we still need the phone for reasons large (voicing your complaints about an aspiring authoritarian running roughshod over the Constitution) and small (you want dinner from a place that’s not listed on OpenTable). And the first step to getting over your fear is understanding why you have it in the first place.

You don’t know what the other person is thinking.

You may have heard the widely cited statistic that more than 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. The numbers are a little iffy on that one, but the underlying idea is true: Words are only one small part of how we convey meaning. And plenty of those other parts — facial expressions, body language, gesture — only do their job when you’re talking face-to-face.

Over the phone, on the other hand, “all we have is the voice,” says Alison Papadakis, a clinical psychology professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies stress. “So that can be a bit nerve-racking for people.” Something that sounds malicious, for example, could in reality be a joke delivered with a smile — but how would you know?

And it’s not just harder to grasp what the other person’s saying — it’s also more of a challenge to know what they think about what you’re saying. “Sometimes when we’re talking to someone, we give them encouragement through our facial expressions,” says clinical psychologist Alexander Queen, who studies anxiety disorders at Tufts University. Raised or furrowed eyebrows, for instance, silently convey that you’re listening, while a head nod encourages the speaker to keep going (and on the flip side, eyes glazing over means it’s probably time to change the subject). Without those cues, the conversation becomes more of a guessing game, with no way of really understanding whether you’ve guessed right. (This also helps explain the excruciating awkwardness of a similar but uniquely horrifying task: leaving voice mails.)

You’re under time pressure.

So why, to so many people, does the phone seem like a scarier option than texting? After all, a typed message is also stripped of all those nonverbal cues. But with written communication, at least, you have time on your side: time to gather your thoughts, time to edit, time to reconsider before hitting send. The phone gives you no such luxuries, meaning that until you hang up, you’re thinking on your feet — and that every word is more of a gamble. “You can kind of correct yourself and take things back, but not in the same way, because it’s already out there,” Papadakis says. Pauses are more loaded, too; in person, you can see when someone is thinking, or when they’re distracted. But over the phone, especially for the anxiety-prone, every silence can be a sign that things are going awry.

There’s also the fact that a call is more time-consuming than a text: While the latter can be dashed off in between other activities, the former requires your full attention, or something close to it. “People worry, am I going to bother this person? Am I going to be a nuisance?” says Jeremy Jamieson, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester who studies social stress and emotion regulation. In that mind-set, it’s easy to see a phone call as a demand, one that the other person might fulfill only grudgingly.

You feel like you’re being judged.

And you’re right, sort of. If you’ve ever made a phone call in an open office, you know how weird it can feel to perform half of a conversation in front of all your co-workers. During face-to-face conversations, outsiders listening in will divide their scrutiny between the two people in question, thereby taking some of the heat off you. “But if you’re talking on the phone, there’s not another person there to take away that attention,” Queen says. “You’re going to be getting all that attention because you’re the one that’s physically in front of them.” (And they probably are paying attention: Research shows that “halfalogues,” or conversations where you can only hear one side, are more distracting than regular old dialogues.)

More often, though, the people around you aren’t the ones stirring up your phone anxiety — it’s the person on the other end of the line. “We don’t like being evaluated by other people. All of our survival as humans depends on other people — we’re very social creatures — so anytime we put ourselves out there to be evaluated, that produces a lot of stress for us,” says Jamieson. “It’s kind of the same thing as public speaking, going into a job interview, other sorts of experiences that tap into this evaluation process. People perceive that they might not be able to perform well in those situations.”

“Some people may have the impression that the stakes are higher for people they may have a relationship with,” Papadakis says. “They’re worried about messing up or upsetting their friends or their romantic partner, and it may have consequences for the relationship. Whereas if I screw up with a customer-service agent on the phone, I’ll never see that person again.”

When that happens, people will often show a higher degree of self-monitoring, or consciously tailoring their behavior to the social situation at hand. Problem is, though, that too much self-monitoring can actually make a conversation more awkward, exacerbating the problem and the anxieties that go along with it. “People who tend towards social anxiety tend to focus a lot on themselves and what they’re doing, and making sure they’re not doing something that would embarrass them,” Papadakis says. “Which makes it harder to have a conversation — if I’m paying attention to me and not what you’re asking me, it’s harder for me to respond to you.”

You just don’t do it all that often.

This is the simplest reason, but it’s not wrong: As your parents have likely grumbled at one time or another, people today — especially the Youths — don’t really pick up the phone very much anymore. “Part of it is inexperience,” Jamieson says. “They understand the rules of texting and what emojis mean, but they don’t have the same kind of knowledge about a phone conversation.” He likens it to a grandparent learning to use Facebook: “It’s awkward, they don’t know the rules, they don’t know what’s going on.” Talking face-to-face may be intuitive, but talking on the phone requires an understanding of a subtler etiquette: breaking a phone call down into its parts, and you have to know how to gracefully segue from the greeting into the next phase, when to pause, when to jump in, how to wind things down. It’s something that takes practice.

So how do you get over it?

The most effective way to combat phone anxiety, unfortunately, is to suffer through some time on the phone. Think of a phone call as exposure therapy — the more you do it, the less daunting it will seem. Queen advises approaching the phone with a technique called “cognitive restructuring,” or strategically altering the way you think about the call. If your concern is being too much of a bother, for example, “You might think things like, ‘Well, why would they answer the phone if they weren’t able to talk?’” he says. Or if you’re worried about stumbling over your words, try to put the mistake in context ahead of time: You’re not the only person they’ll talk to that day, nor the only verbal slipup they’ll hear. What seems like a huge deal, in other words, is barely a blip on the other person’s radar.

Once you’ve gotten that far, Papadakis recommends setting concrete goals, like calling someone and staying on the line for five full minutes (as opposed to something like “Call someone and don’t sound nervous,” which is tougher to objectively evaluate). The key, she explains, is starting small and working from least to most nerve-racking: If having an easy, freewheeling chat sounds terrifying, start with a more formal, structured call, and write yourself a script beforehand. Maybe try saying a few things out loud to yourself. And then, when there’s nothing left to do but dial, you get to dialing.

Psychologists Explain Your Phone Anxiety