The simple act of talking on the phone can give some people unbearable anxiety, whether it’s a serious talk with a loved one or a two-minute call to order pizza. What is it about the phone that provokes such distress?
We asked two psychologists -- co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, Dr. Sally Winston, and clinical director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago, Dr. Debra Kissen -- why some people dread picking up the phone.
What’s up with the phone being more difficult than just talking?
Making a telephone call is a performance, so it’s likely that the anxiety associated with it is a type of performance anxiety. Talking on the phone can become an excruciating task if you’re susceptible to performance anxiety, making you afraid you’ll do it wrong, you’ll sound nervous, you’ll freeze up, or you’ll be rejected. “It’s something that can subject you to the bad judgments of someone else, and the core fear is becoming humiliated,” Winston says.
Clients who get anxiety from speaking on the phone usually -- but not always -- have other forms of anxiety. According to Kissen, “In general, they more prefer texting or email to in-person or phone [conversations].”
One explanation for this is the weirdly simultaneous distance and proximity of a phone chat; it’s a spontaneous, real-time conversation, but you don’t receive the facial cues you get when you’re face to face with someone. “Like right now we’re on the phone and I have no idea if you think I’m dumb or if I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Kissen says. “I’m not getting a head nod or ongoing feedback that what I’m saying is acceptable to you.”