I’ve never liked phones. I get anxious as soon as I feel my iPhone arrogantly vibrate in my pocket demanding attention with no consideration for my surroundings or situation. I feel dread as my sweaty palms grasp it to silence its rudimentary ring as I glance at the screen and decide whether to ‘answer’ or ‘reject’.
I even remember this feeling from when I was a child. I recall getting scalded after cutting the phone cord with a pair of scissors because I thought that ‘people talked too much’. I also remember the ring of our old landline phone. I didn’t often bring good news. Before mobile phones, the landline was our single umbilical cord to the outside world… A telegraph that would inform us of deaths, births, marriages and the like. There was no caller ID so the dull tone of the handset’s ring would bring anticipation and fear of the unknown.
There are times, even now, when I just don’t feel like talking to anyone on the phone. Times when I want to turn off all my devices and just crawl into a dark hole. The thing is, I’m quite good with people. I’ve travelled the world and dealt with thousands of people in corporate and personal settings from many countries and cultures. So, why is it that a phone call can cause anxiety?
I don’t think it’s a phobia of the phone, I think it’s more complex and nuanced than that. For me at least, it’s about control. A conversation is a messy, raw and real-time interaction that requires on-the-fly improvisation. In this era of smartphones, iMessage, Skype, and email, we have become accustomed to being able to think about our response before replying. We’re now used to being able to conduct a quality assurance check on our interactions and because of this, some of us find conversations intimidating and quite frankly, a lot of effort! We’ve all experienced getting off the phone and thinking “why did I say that…?” The old post-conversation regret of wishing that the conversation had gone differently!
The fear is that conversations can allow another person to ‘hack’ into your personality and emotion. If you’re uncertain or you’re not confident then it becomes obvious through tone of voice and the way that you respond to others. Using too many words and waffling can suggest a lack of confidence, whilst too fewer words can suggest arrogance or even stupidity! With email and text, we have the luxury of presenting a false image of ‘self’ and can hide our true feelings and emotions behind keyboards and screens.
Look at cyber bullying. People who bully others on the internet are simply insecure and weak. They say things that they would never have the guts to say in person to anyone! Behind the keyboard, they’re able to say what they want and present a false self to attack others. If you bump into these people at a party they’re probably the quiet, socially awkward one in the corner.
I’m not necessarily talking about social anxiety here or even shyness. It’s more a lack of willingness to engage in a real-time conversation if there’s other options available. I often find myself subconsciously pushing people to email and text, rather than just picking up the phone. Sometimes I’ll decline calls for no reason other than I feel I don’t have the energy for a real conversation.
This is interesting given that mobile phones only became popular when I was in high school and they certainly weren’t smart! I didn’t have an email address until I was 16 and I remember feeling surprised that ‘anyone’ could even have an email address as I set up my Hotmail account. There certainly wasn’t Facebook or any social media so, I can only imagine that the prevalence of being comfortable with messaging and text but uncomfortable with real and dynamic conversations may become more of a problem for today’s youth.
So what’s the answer? I don’t think this is going to get any better and I predict we will have generations of young people who find real-time conversations a trigger of immense anxiety. We need to spend more time in real situations and care less about our image or what others think. I feel that we need to educate young people to not hide behind technology and to have the confidence to build real relationships without fear. Sure, you can’t control the interaction and it can be messy, but if we’re all just ourselves in a genuine community then I’m sure there’s more to be gained by fluid face-to-face communication than avoiding real-time interactions for fear of relinquishing control.