Why phone anxiety exists, and how to get over it
Psychologists explain that shaky feeling
In an age where instant messaging is one of our primary forms of communication, and where nearly everything can be done online—from ordering food to booking a doctor's appointment—speaking on the phone is becoming less and less common. But the moments do come when dialing a number becomes unavoidable, and while it's a breeze for some people, it can mean shaky hands, nervous sweating, and a panicky feeling in the chest for many others.
Phone anxiety is more common than you think, and it isn't just restricted to those with social anxiety. The Cut collected many guides and tweets on the internet created for people who dread speaking on the phone, but wanted to call their political representatives to make a change.
Panicked when I called my congressman and said I was also a congressman and now we're getting lunch and talking policy and falling in love— vineyille (@vineyille) January 25, 2017
Called my senator about the ACA. Got nervous and misnamed it. Person on phone was patient and kind.— Amelia (@deserthooker) January 23, 2017
We can do the thing, anxious bros!
Whether you're also struggling to make a change or you just want to make a reservation at a restaurant that doesn't do bookings online, the best way to tackle phone anxiety is to understand it.
It's a widely accepted fact that a huge percentage of communication is nonverbal, so the absence of facial expressions, body language, and gestures on the phone can be nerve-wracking, and can lead to misinterpretations of what someone is trying to say. And it goes the other way, too: “Sometimes when we’re talking to someone, we give them encouragement through our facial expressions,” says clinical psychologist Alexander Queen. When you're on the phone, you can't use your usual nonverbal cues, and that can be very unsettling.
While texting is also nonverbal, an important difference is that speaking on the phone adds time pressure. You can't think through or edit your response, and pauses become more loaded. Speaking on the phone is also much more demanding of time and attention, so there's an added anxiety of being a burden. "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.
Phone anxiety also comes from simply feeling like you're being judged while talking into your device in public. People love eavesdropping as much as you do, and when you're already feeling the pressure of both understanding and being understood clearly within time constraints, monitoring yourself for other people only makes it harder to have a conversation.
Lastly, and one of the biggest reasons for phone anxiety in the modern age, is that you just don't do it very much. Jamieson likened it to grandparents learning to use Facebook: “It’s awkward, they don’t know the rules, they don’t know what’s going on.” Talking on the phone, learning all of its nuances and cues, inevitably takes practice.
That's why the best way to beat it is to join it. Similar to exposure therapy, making more phone calls will make the entire experience less terrifying.
Queen suggests restructuring the way you think about a call, like combating the idea of being a burden by asking yourself why they would answer the phone if they couldn't talk. You can also remind yourself that you're not the only person to ever slip up when speaking, so what seems like a huge tumble to you is often barely a blip on another person's radar.
Other psychologists suggest setting concrete but simple goals, like staying on the phone for at least five minutes, with anyone, talking about anything. If you're stressed about running out of things to say, write a loose script and practice talking out loud before picking up the phone.
All that's left is to punch in the numbers!