Culture

We love our phones, so why do we hate making phone calls?

If the thought of calling someone on the phone fills you with dread, you're not alone. Here's how to make those scary calls feel less threatening.

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Rather not talk on the phone? You're not the only one.

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Fess up. You've done it. You've avoided making a phone call and sent a text or email instead.

It's about being considerate, right?

A live phone call raises risks a text doesn't. What if you're calling at a bad time? What if you say something awkward or dumb in a medium that doesn't have a delete button? Text, and the other person can answer on their own time.

But honestly, you just didn't want to talk to them.

An estimated 5.4 billion people worldwide -- or over three-fourths of everyone on the planet -- will have mobile phones by 2020, according to a 2016 Cisco study. The more these devices take over our lives, the easier it is to type a few letters and emoji than to talk in real time to a person who might awkwardly interrupt you or not laugh at your jokes. More than 560 billion text messages are sent worldwide monthly, according to the most recent data from Statistic Brain.

"Calling doesn't make sense anymore," said Paige Pammer, a 20-year-old sophomore at Temple University in Philadelphia. "With texting, you can communicate with way more people than you would feel comfortable talking on the phone with. I feel comfortable calling my mom, but my lab partner? No way."

I'm with Pammer, and I've been out of college longer than she's been been alive. I used to love making calls -- those prank calls I dialed with my cousin as a tween were particularly fun. But now calling's a chore. And I'm not alone among my peers. In a casual survey of friends mostly born in the '60s and '70s, I found many others happy to ditch live phoning for what they see as an easier, more efficient option.

When I started working on this story, I didn't dial up Keri K. Stephens, a communications studies professor at the University of Texas who teaches a sales communications class to college students who've never lived without cell phones. I emailed her -- first to ask if she'd do the interview, then to give her an idea what we'd be talking about.

Then the interview time arrived. I called her, and we chatted for 45 minutes. Yet somewhat embarrassingly, as with many phone calls these days, I got nervous as the call approached. WTH? We're both professionals, she was expecting my call and it wasn't an adversarial situation. I wasn't shaky and my palms didn't sweat, but I felt that unspoken, low-key dread that never hits when I'm punching out a text. It's a mix of not knowing what attitude I'll get from the other person and a general nervousness about whether I know enough about the topic we'll tackle.

Bottom line: I'm out of practice.

Stephens sees this sort of apprehension in her students all the time. A 2013 survey of 2,500 UK workers by Jurys Inn Hotel Group found that four out of 10 respondents between 18 and 24 got nervous making phone calls.

Telephonophobia

Making phone calls "is not a skill set they're growing up knowing and understanding how to do," she said. So she requires her students to make a live phone call to a person of their choice during class.

"I say, 'I want you to have a real conversation with another human, and I want you to remind yourself that this is not scary, this is not hard. This is just not something that you are doing all the time now,'" she said, adding that her students laugh when they hear the assignment.

It might be nervous laughter.

Kathleen Arnold, one of Stephens' former students, witnessed some of her peers "panic" when unexpectedly asked to make a call. "A lot of people were very anxious about it, even if they were just calling their parents," she said.

To be sure, for people with social anxiety, phone calls may be yet another interaction that causes self-consciousness and intense fear of being judged or criticized. There's even a word, telephonophobia, to describe people who suffer from a deep and sometimes debilitating fear of talking by phone. Sometimes, as with other phobias, telephonophobia can stem from a negative experience, like receiving traumatic news by phone.

In contrast, most of Stephens' students suffer from the good old-fashioned trepidation that stems from being asked to try something new. Stephens says her students need to be taught how to "get over their initial fear of rejection when they talk to another human live."

It's weird to hear phone-call-avoidance tagged as a "fear of rejection." Maybe I secretly feared rejection when I called to ask about an internship at a local magazine or dialed up that floppy-haired fencer to ask him to the sophomore dance, but mostly, rejection never crossed my mind back in the prime age of phone calls. I had to communicate with someone who wasn't there, I let my fingers do the walking (Google it, young 'uns) and made the call.

"I think this [age] group is no different, but they have other ways to contact people, so they just avoid it," Stephens said.

Don't call me, maybe

For Arnold, it's not making calls but getting them that can be hard.

"I catch myself often letting an important call or a call from an unknown number go to voicemail because I do not like to be caught off guard and not prepared for the conversation," she said.

In this era of con artists, I get it.

I let a call from an unfamiliar number go to voicemail the other day, assuming that if it wasn't a scam, the caller would leave a message. It turned out to be the opposite of a scam -- my credit union was calling to say a would-be thief was trying to use my debit card at Walmart. But I still feel I did the right thing. Forcing the caller to leave the message let me verify it was the credit union and not a huckster trying to coax personal financial info out of me by claiming to help.

I can't, of course, speak for my generation. Some are as quick to punch up or answer a real call as we did back in the '80s, and I admire them for not letting this once common skill turn as rusty as our once-hip Rollerblades.

"Some of my younger colleagues are surprised when their emails go unanswered for days at a time," said Lesley Grossman, 38, a television producer in New York. "I feel like I'm always reminding them the phone exists for actual voice communication. Nine times out of 10, you'll get an answer that much quicker if you just call someone instead of waiting for them to return an email."

A need for speed

It's not always the youngest workers who shy away from making calls.

"I became convinced of email's value over phone conversations for business a long time ago," said Kristin Burns, who works at a large West Coast university, and who, being 53, remembers the era when calls were essential. "As the manager and head administrative problem-solver to three dozen faculty and staff, I have been able to convince others as well. Emailing is really our culture here."

Pammer, who's majoring in biology and plans to attend medical school, thinks the ease and speed of texting will win converts, even in the corporate world.

Every now and then you might have to put that thing up to your ear.

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"Obviously it's easier to contact teenagers and young adults if you use platforms and communication styles that they are into," she said. "Altogether, the easier and faster something is to do, the more likely it is that it will get done."

Of course, her choice of a medical career may affect how many phone calls she has to make. It's hard to envision giving a patient a disturbing diagnosis over text, but there are many medical jobs that don't involve much patient interaction.

If, like Pammer, you hate phone calls, Stephens warns you to choose your line of work carefully.

"There probably are careers out there where people are doing everything through text," Stephens said. "But I think it's hard to build close relationships with people that you work with unless you at least occasionally have some real-time conversations."

As for me, I've found a "fake it till you make it" attitude helps. I remind myself I've made phone calls my entire professional life, and the person I'm calling has no idea I'm nervous.

Uh, unless they read this article, I guess.

Scared to make a call? Try these tips

  • "Just do it!" Stephens says. "The worst thing that can happen is you get told no." My personal tip: Write down a list of three things you'll get done on a certain day, with the thorny call being one of them. This can force your hand, as you have to answer to yourself if you don't check off all your items.
  • Remind yourself people don't have to answer the phone if your call is inconvenient, Stephens says. I tell myself they probably won't pick up, and have no problem leaving a clear voicemail if I'm right. Tag, you're it!
  • Calling someone with a valid business goal is not bothering them, Stephens notes. These calls are easier for me to make -- calls to set up a doctor's appointment or schedule car maintenance. They've become easier now that I have a young daughter who relies on me to set things up for her. Getting into Mom Mode makes phone calls seem more natural.
  • "Making a call means you get an answer faster," Stephens points out. "This helps you move forward or move on to another prospect." I'm not a salesperson, but somewhere in life I heard the phrase, "Grasp the nettle tightly." To me, that means do what's painful to you right away, get it over with. The feeling of relief when you're done is worth it.

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