21 Mar 2023

How to overcome phone phobia

Our means of communication are multiplying, offering us a growing range of choices – texting, emails, messaging apps, video calls, chatbots – but increasingly we’re steering clear of the humble phone.

In a work context many of us argue that communicating by digital means offers us a range of advantages: it enables us to multitask, to work when and where we please, to pause for thought and consideration, without having to come up with an instantaneous response. Above all, communicating in these ways gives us a feeling of control: we are setting the agenda, choosing when to respond and giving ourselves a sense of psychological distance, which may help to relieve the stress we feel when we are bombarded by information and requests all day long.

In a social context, phone calls are also in decline. Many people find their phones intrusive, preferring to switch them to silent, and to communicate by text or message. It is increasingly common to use text messages to arrange phone calls at a set time, thereby asserting control over the phone, rather than letting its insistent ringing rule our lives. We are beginning to feel hesitant about spontaneously picking up the phone and making a call – we project our own desire to control input on to others and choose more circuitous routes of communication.

Many of us also find ourselves reluctant to use the phone when we are administering our own lives. If we have a query about our bills, our broadband contract, our bank account, or if we have a customer complaint, we tend to hide behind the anonymity of the online complaint form or the chatbot, opting to avoid direct connection with another human being. This tendency is greatly magnified by many companies’ phone systems, which seem to be designed to deter all contact by putting up barriers such as multiple menus, automated answering, and protracted waiting times (with or without musical accompaniment). The more we avoid using the phone, the less appealing phone calls become; we find ourselves turning phone phobic, always attempting to find other routes to access information and help.

Yet, despite the benefits and effectiveness of digital forms of communication, using the phone can be the most practical way of getting things done. It is a well-tested and universally available tool, which does not require computer equipment, programs, or a reliable WiFi connection. A phone call will circumvent unnecessary bureaucracy and obfuscation – anyone who has had to wade through an epic email thread will know how very easily the nub of the matter can be buried or obscured. Providing you get through to the right person, a phone call is also gratifyingly direct; questions can be asked and answered, clarification can be sought, a course of action can be agreed – all in the space of a few minutes and without an intervening and protracted layer of written circumlocution.

Above all, a phone call is person-to-person. It gives you a chance to experience a moment of human connection, to exchange pleasantries, or comment on the weather. You will be able to respond to the tones and nuances of the human voice, convey subtle feelings of friendliness, gratitude, frustration or irritation that would be completely lost in a text exchange. Phone calls are an excellent way of communicating humorously, deploying irony and self-deprecation, which is much more open to misinterpretation in writing. This will allow you to build up a constructive rapport, which will inevitably expedite the business in hand.

Phone calls are also an ideal way to make discreet enquiries or circumvent official channels, bearing in mind that we do not always want all our communications to be recorded for posterity, or forwarded to other people. They allow us to be diplomatic and strategic.

We are lucky enough to be able to choose from many different types of communication; it would be a great pity if the phone is overlooked. If you feel you’re suffering from incipient phone phobia, try the following:

• Take calls more frequently – don’t let every incoming call go straight through to voicemail; if you recognise the number pick up the call. This will prevent you becoming rusty and may help you to avoid phone shyness.

• Make everyday phone calls – if you want to order a takeaway, book an appointment or find out if your dry cleaning is ready, consider using the phone rather than going online. You may find it much more efficient and pleasant.

• Don’t overthink making a phone call. If you’re worried that you’re bothering someone by making a call, preface your conversation with a polite query “is this a good time to talk, or would you prefer me to call you back?”

• Don’t forget the pleasantries. Phone calls are undoubtedly a good way of cutting through obfuscation and misinformation, but they will always be more successful if you establish human contact first. This can be as simple as asking “how are you?” – it’s only polite.

• Smile. It helps if you smile in a friendly manner when you speak on the phone. You can’t be seen, but the tone of your voice changes when you smile, and the caller will “hear” the smile. Even if you are making a difficult phone call, perhaps about a complaint, remember that a smile will aways be disarming.


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