exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

ringing, stinging, jerking like a nervous bird

by Jen at 9:02 pm on 29.04.2011 | 6 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

hi, i’m jen, and i suffer from phone anxiety.

what’s that? you’ve never heard of phone anxiety? some people call it phone phobia (although i think “phobia” is a bit too dramatic for me). i’ve had it all my life, and until about 8 or 9 years ago, i had no idea it affected anyone else. i truly thought i was the only person in the world who got anxious using the telephone.

seriously. because, i mean really – how *dumb* is it to be afraid of the telephone? but i am. with friends and family and people i know well, i’m fine. but for everything else, i get a knot in my stomach and a tightening in my chest every time i have to make or take a phone call. everything from ordering pizza to making calls at work, makes me (to a greater or lesser degree) feel the same way people feel before taking tests or going on stage – it’s just that my stage-fright starts with a dial tone.

i have no idea where it comes from. i’ve never (to my memory) had any kind of horrible telephone trauma. there’s some speculation that it’s a form of social anxiety disorder, which makes some sense, since i used to be painfully shy as a child. but i really don’t know why i dread phone calls so much. also mysteriously, it has, over the past few years, gotten dramatically better for me. again, no idea why.

but still, if i had my druthers, i’d almost never make a phone call. i procrastinate, i avoid, i try to find loopholes via text and email and internet. i order takeaway food online. i let all unknown numbers go straight to voice mail. i call when i know they won’t be available and leave messages instead.

unfamiliar or stressful situations make it even worse. when i first moved to london, it was horrible. firstly, because i got my first mobile phone – and i detest mobile phones, with their expectation that you are constantly available, the horrible sound quality (am i the only one who really actually can’t hear people on those things?), and the extreme awkwardness of having a conversation in full public hearing of crowds of strangers. secondly, because i still had a hard time understanding some people’s accents (and them, mine). have you ever tried carrying on a conversation with someone with a heavy accent when you can’t see their lips? thirdly, because there is very different phone etiquette in the UK than in north america. brits start the conversation with lots of perfunctory social pleasantries, they never just dive right in. brits do not ever interrupt the other party. brits end the conversation with several goodbyes before they actually hang up, usually in increasingly high-pitched, saccharine tones (”okay then, goodbye! bye!! *bye*!!!”). i’ll never forget the first phone call i got on my mobile phone, was a recruiter with a heavy Scottish accent, calling me while i was in the london bridge station concourse, and in between accidentally talking over her, trying to find a pen to write down interview details, and trying to hear/understand her, i was in a panic. by the time i got off, i was drenched in sweat and had to go collect myself before waiting for the next train. hideous.

it got better, of course. but it never really leaves me. so i have coping mechanisms that i use, such as:

  • rehearsal. i try to know in advance what i will say, i practice the wording. this works well for run-of-the-mill situations like ordering pizza, where i can fairly accurately predict how the exchange will occur: what i will say, what they will say in return, what questions they’ll ask, what my answers will be.
  • batching. this is what i do for “errand” type phone calls (correcting the cable bill, making doctor’s appointments) – i set aside time when i know i can sit quietly alone and make several calls all at once. then i just try to get through all of them, like ripping off a plaster, and once they’re done, the anxiety that’s been hanging over me around knowing i have calls to make, lifts instantaneously.
  • using notes and speaking slowly. this is what i do when i have calls that will require me to think on my feet, like speaking to prospective employers, or negotiating contentious issues with the phone company, or answering queries at work. i usually jot down some reference notes to have to hand, and try to slow down what comes out of my mouth, so that i have time to think ahead of what i’m going to say. it sounds more deliberate and measured, which also makes me feel more confident.
  • using voicemail. even if i call back just a few minutes later, it makes me feel more in control, more prepared. answering the phone when i don’t know what to expect catches me off guard and makes me terribly anxious. it may seem rude, but i really am “sorry i can’t take your call at the moment”. i may want to be able to – but i can’t.
  • revisiting phone calls that went well. replaying these in my head reminds me of what worked, that i will feel much better once it’s done, and that i am a capable adult who can handle a telephone conversation without having a meltdown.

however, probably the worst situation for phone phobics, is job hunting.

  • there is a lot of telephoning involved. even in the age of the internet, there’s still a frequent requirement that you pick up the phone and speak to someone.
  • you have to answer the phone even when you don’t want to, because the price of not answering is too great. you can’t afford to lose a job opportunity because of your phone anxiety
  • where you spend most of your time trying to allay your phone anxiety by telling yourself that you’re *not* being judged by the person on the other end of the phone, in a job seeking situation, you are being judged.
  • you’re being required to perform well via a medium which is your achille’s heel. in person, i interview great. over the phone, not so much.
  • knowing all of the above only heightens the phone anxiety, and makes it that much harder.

it’s hell – no matter how much you practice, or how often you do it, job hunting for people with phone anxiety really is hell. imagine having claustrophobia, and having to spend significant time in lifts, or having acrophobia and having to interview in skyscrapers, just to land a job. the only way through it is through it – but it doesn’t make it any easier. so spare a thought for me as i struggle through it here in vancouver – just don’t call me about it.

cake – no phone

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  • 1

    Comment by daddio

    30.04.2011 @ 00:07 am

    get yourself some ativan.

  • 2

    Comment by Jen

    30.04.2011 @ 17:20 pm

    ha! i’m not sure taking ativan before a job-related phone call is the wisest idea )

  • 3

    Comment by Mum

    2.05.2011 @ 02:48 am

    I never knew you had phone anxiety too. Mine got better when I was just thrown in to sink or swim in the 90’s. I couldn’t pass calls off to any one else. I still don’t like calling people i don’t know or making difficult calls( disagreeable people, complaints,etc). I have used all the same stategies..incl writing “breathe” on the top of my notes! I think it has gotten better as I have become older,more self-confident. Hang in there!

  • 4

    Comment by Jen

    2.05.2011 @ 04:47 am

    ha! maybe i inherited it from you )

  • 5

    Comment by Demonic chicken of the apocalypse

    4.05.2011 @ 13:38 pm

    Of course you can’t hear anything on your phone … it’s an iPhone – nothing to do with making calls.

  • 6

    Comment by Jen

    4.05.2011 @ 16:44 pm

    har, har, har )

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