How do I get rid of my phone-o-phobia?
May 29, 2007 3:53 PM   Subscribe

How do I get rid of my phone-o-phobia?

I have phone-o-phobia. I can call my partner or my parents with no problems, but it takes me a while to work up the courage to phone friends. If I need to call customers at work I can stall panicking about it for an hour and then finally make the call, only to find out that the customer is out of the office!

I am not so bad with things like calling for a taxi, because I can predict the conversation beforehand and rehearse it in my head. But with calls that are likely to be unpredictable I'm terrible. I've spent my life automatically avoiding phone calls - mostly by sending emails and text messages - but I don't want to have to do that any more.

So far my best idea has been to make a list of phone calls I can make, from the easy to the hard, and make a habit of calling someone every day, working up the list as I get better at it.

For this to work, I need some ideas for more and less predictable phone calls that I can plausibly make, in the evening or at weekends (I'm in the UK if that's relevant). Bonus points if I get something interesting out of the call and don't completely waste the time of people who are paid to answer phone calls.

Other ideas about how to get rid of phone-o-phobia are welcome too!
posted by emilyw to Human Relations (27 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
I've always had that problem, too, and I finally started getting over it by pretending that I'm someone else on the phone. Not misrepresenting who I am, but looking at it as an acting gig.
posted by cmonkey at 4:08 PM on May 29, 2007

cmonkey has it. I used to have a lot of trouble with phone calls, but looking at them as an acting exercise helped immensely.

I'm going to guess you're a bit reserved in general (I certainly am, and forgive me if that's wrong), but it's a great help to act outlandishly gregarious on the phone (at least from the perspective of a reserved person). Even though you feel you're acting goofy, it just comes across as friendliness over the line, and the other person responds positively, which in turn makes you feel more confident.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 4:23 PM on May 29, 2007

Try getting a job answering the phone somewhere. It's scary, but it really worked for me!
posted by TheCoug at 4:24 PM on May 29, 2007

Answering your question:

you can call friends. You can call restaurants you may one day eat at to verify the hours and if they take reservations. You can leave something small but unique someplace and then call and try to see if someone turned it in. You can call hotels and see what the rate is for a room on your birthday. You can call the reference desk at the library with an actual question [how many people are there in Haiti?]

Not so much answering your question: I also have telephone-a-phobia. I got married [built-in person to call for chinese]. I also am really strict about not calling late or early, and what has helped me the most is "Hey, is this a good time?" because I hate bothering people. I will also often send an e-mail or IM before calling, thereby setting up a mini-appointment.
posted by Mozzie at 4:27 PM on May 29, 2007

Seconding TheCoug: I hated making phone calls until I started looking for an apartment that would take dogs. So few of the landlords do in my area that I ended up making literally hundreds of calls. By the end I was willing to call anybody about anything.

I'm not recommending that you move in order to become more comfortable on the phone, but the only way to get better at something is to practice. Maybe volunteer at your favorite charity or political organization doing phone banking for a couple of hours a week? You'll have the benefit of a script, and if you find something where you're calling members of the organization you'll get a friendlier audience than if you're making cold calls asking for money.
posted by harkin banks at 4:31 PM on May 29, 2007

I'll be watching this thread with interest. I have this to an extent too, and I'm wondering:

Do you have similar problems with face to face conversation, or is it phone only?

Do you find that you actually have bad results with the feared phone conversations, or is it all in the anticipation?

I'd agree with making calls of some kind everyday. Avoidance reinforces phobias, as I mentioned in this thread on mail phobia.

If you have a list of calls to make, I'd suggest trying to make the hardest one first. The rest may not seem bad at all afterwards. On the other hand, graduated exposure therapy for phobias is often recommended.
posted by DarkForest at 4:32 PM on May 29, 2007

A lot of people who have to speak a second language over the phone (ESL students, for example) also have this problem. What might help is to write out a rough script for yourself. The script would include your greeting and reason for calling. It would also include possible responses or questions from the person you are calling, and how you might respond to them in turn.

These scripts tend to help people feel a little more comfortable and prepared for the actual call, which is a big part of making the call successful. Beyond this, yes, practice. A lot.
posted by moira at 4:52 PM on May 29, 2007

I'm also phone-a phobic. Recently I made a list of friends and family I'd like to stay in better touch with and I use a headset to call them when I'm doing brainless chores at home. I've also been forcing myself to answer the phone when it rings.

I don't know about you but the onset of cellphones has totally amplified this problem for me. I despise talking in public for one thing and I hate that you can never hear anyone and they're always fading in and out and it's that much worse when you're both on cell phones. I have a cell phone but I almost never use it except to text and I always keep the ringer off.
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:00 PM on May 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Find a political candidate or cause that you support, and volunteer to make calls. They're always looking for more people, and practice makes perfect!
posted by awesomebrad at 5:04 PM on May 29, 2007

One thing to consider is that if you get it to go away and get out of practice, phone phobia can come back. I have tried the political calling. I have had months where I did a dozen phone interviews. Once in middle school I was president of orchestra and it was part of my duties to call a bunch of high school band directors to tell them something or other.

After all these experiences I'm chill around the phone for a while but it always, always comes back. This coming fall I'm going to be doing phone tech support and while I hope it'll be a permanent cure, I have my doubts.
posted by crinklebat at 5:13 PM on May 29, 2007

Second the scripting. When I did an internship as a reporter one summer I was deathly afraid of the phone. My first week on the job, I had to call several people to interview for a story, and made the mistake of dialling a number on the list without remembering whose number it was. This left me in the oh-so-professional position of having to guess the name of the other person on the line. (Hint: don't do that. Especially not when someone else is in your cubicle at the time.)

Things go much smoother when you have a basic idea of what to say to start the conversation. You don't have to carefully plot out the whole conversation; just something that's long enough to get you into the natural rhythm of talking without worrying about saying the wrong thing or not having anything to say or whatnot.

For calls that don't involve your friends, or calls for a particular purpose, scripting is especially useful. For friends you probably don't need much more than "say hello, ask them if they want to go to dinner, decide on place and time." For that client you need to call, you can be more specific—things you want to mention as part of the sales pitch, or questions you need to ask them, or whatever. Presumably there's a reason you need to call them; expand on that reason as much as you need to make yourself feel comfortable that you'll know what to say.

And finally, remember that people are pretty forgiving of long pauses over the phone. I've completely blanked on the next thing to say occasionally, but a simple "sorry, I'm just organizing my notes" or "apologies, I'm just going through the list of concerns" is usually more than enough cover for a lapse in conscious thought.
posted by chrominance at 5:18 PM on May 29, 2007

Making calls for my college's recruitment office helped me ... especially my voicemail skills. After working the phones for a while, it became sort of instinctive: "Hello, this is so-and-so, phone number so-and-so, date/time, are we still on for this Friday? Call me back! Again, phone number is so-and-so! Thanks, have a good day - bye!" And I started being able to talk really smoothly and convincingly, about things I barely knew a rat's ass about.

However, it also made me absolutely loathe!!! making calls to Meddling Mothers, Perplexed Prospectives, and the world in general. This, too, may happen to you.
posted by Xere at 5:19 PM on May 29, 2007

Are you afraid of rejection? (Freind: "I can't talk right now.")

Are you afraid you will run out of things to say?

Are you afraid you won't be interesting enough for your friends to talk to?

Are you afraid of what they are thinking of you while you talk?

Find out the root of the fear, then work on that. A therapist who specializes in cognitive therapy might help.
posted by The Deej at 5:20 PM on May 29, 2007

Wow, I thought I was the only one with this problem. :)
posted by mrunderhill at 5:21 PM on May 29, 2007

Strangely, I am a gregarious person face-to-face and even speaking in front of groups, but i still have this problem. I had a teacher in grad school who found out about it and he made me call him for an "assignment." Scared the hell out of me, but I did it. (He was also a real dick to me on the phone, too. I guess he thought that was doing me a favor.) So, maybe having someone you know be a guinea pig?

I also second crinklebat--I just quit a job making many daily collections calls, and I already find myself hesitant to make calls again.

I think for me, this phobia may have something to do with not being able to see facial expressions. What if the person is over there rolling their eyes or making that "yapping" hand motion? Yikes.
posted by thebrokedown at 5:23 PM on May 29, 2007

For me, I think it's more about the fear of bothering someone than it is about not seeing facial expressions.

This is because I'm fine with instant messaging, but I detest calling people.

So, what's the OP to do? I agree with Deej; she should figure out the root cause, and fix that instead.

As for good practice phone calls, try phoning ahead to stores to see if they have what you need. Useful skill too.

Also, once you get to the point where you can make the calls you need to for work, who cares if you're never a big phone person? Letters are a fine way to keep in touch socially.
posted by nat at 6:00 PM on May 29, 2007

Start by thinking "what is the worse that can happen?"

Surprisingly the majority of people, friends especially, enjoy calls from friends even if its of the "whats new" variety.

Many people fall into, 'they don't call me why should I call them?' traps.

The answer, of course is to say hello, I was thinking of you, and care about you, how have you been?

Service calls are more rote, get to the point, take care of business, scripts? Not a bad idea, if someone veers from the script, get back to the point.
posted by Max Power at 6:03 PM on May 29, 2007

I had the same problem, and followed the advice that I think I read in Zimbardo's book on Shyness. It's pretty much what you are thinking already. I'd call a store and ask something simple--closing hours, for example. Then I'd work up to calling somewhere else and asking something more complex--directions to get there. Eventually I'd start calling bookstores and asking them if they had a certain book in stock. It seems simple, but after enough practice my phonophobia pretty much went away. It might take me a little more mental energy to make a call than it takes someone else, but I have no problem doing it.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:06 PM on May 29, 2007

Scripting is a good start, but try not to rely on it for long. It helps more to have a general outline of what you're going to say, and a little standard spiel when starting the call (your name, company, etc).

I used to hate telephone conversations (especially since I have an accent and many Americans find it hard to understand me on the phone). Then I worked for a brokerage firm, making and taking US and international calls all day long. That type of forced immersion is painful, but it can work! Just remember the purpose of the call, what you want out of it, and where possible keep it brief.

This advice is useless for casual phone conversations with friends (but I've never understood the desire to call someone without a good reason)
posted by mogotron at 6:49 PM on May 29, 2007

Can your partner help you "practice"? Maybe you can call your partner or a friend and have them pretend to be a client or the Chinese take-out guy or whoever, and they can react to you both predictably and unpredictably. You will know that the person on the other end of the phone is someone you know and trust, so you can't mess it up, but you will also be learning to trust yourself to react reasonably when a phone conversation doesn't go according to script.

Ok, on preview, this is a big fat convoluted run-on sentence, but hopefully I'm making a little bit of sense...
posted by dogmom at 7:39 PM on May 29, 2007

Just remind yourself that talking on the phone is no more unpredictable than talking in person. I have the same problem, so I know this is hard to do...
Here's one of the scariest things I ever did: When I was in highschool, I met a guy online and chatted with him for months. Finally he asked if he could call me. So I gave him my number, and then agonized over it for the next few days. When he finally called, it was a little awkward, but we kept a good conversation going for over an hour - and I never have conversations on the phone. Afterward, I found that sort of thing a lot less stressful. (And made a great friend I still know to this day.)

So maybe you can make some online friends, and slowly work up to talking with them on the phone? It doesn't need to be more than that, and the fact that they are people that you don't know in real life will make it more stressful, but also make it more useful in conquering the phobia, if you can manage to make yourself do it.
posted by catatethebird at 10:24 PM on May 29, 2007

Phone-o-phobia is a nortoriously big problem for those with ADD/ADHD. The coping strategies for overcoming it should work for anyone, ADD or not. I second those who say that scripting is the key. Make a list of what you're going to talk about ahead of time (just a rough outline). Make sure you have an "exit strategy" also, so the call doesn't trail off and leave you in awkward-land.
posted by purplegenie at 5:29 AM on May 30, 2007

This is so interesting to me. I hate phone conversations. They make my heart race and I start sweating and blushing. I'm also reserved in person, so it could be an extension of shyness. I always imagine the other person making faces to a friend in the room when they're talking to me. No real reason for it, other than that I was a target of intensive persecution for years from middle school through my first years of college.

I've lost at least one potential friend over this. She called me up one day, and I just couldn't bear to call her back. I emailed her, but she took my failure to return the call as a rejection.

I saw an article about people who are declaring moratoriums on email correspondence. They make an announcement that they're just not going to answer email messages anymore. If that simplifies their lives, that's great, but I still think it makes them look like dicks. And I know people think I'm an asshole for being unable (unwilling, in their minds) to answer a phone call.

No advice here, just commiserating on it with you...but you received some good suggestions.
posted by frosty_hut at 9:09 AM on May 30, 2007

I've always had that problem, too, and I finally started getting over it by pretending that I'm someone else on the phone. Not misrepresenting who I am, but looking at it as an acting gig.

I do pretty much the same thing as cmonkey. Scripting is a horrendous failure for me. It means more planning, which means more worry, and when real life can't keep to script, I'm at a loss.

Overplanning is what causes my phone anxiety. I try to be anti-planning with a dash of third-person-observing of myself as if I were an actor.

But to be fully forthcoming the truth is that I had no choice. My partner also has phone phobia and will not call anyone (except for work). He won't call the pizza delivery place, the vet (for his cat!), our dentist -- nothing. As the only slightly less phone phobic I took it as my responsibility if I ever wanted to eat pizza again (and, oh, I do). Having your hand forced is the best cure I'm aware of.
posted by birdie birdington at 9:39 AM on May 30, 2007

It would be fun helping you practice. My email is in my profile if you're interested.
posted by spork at 12:34 PM on May 30, 2007

I have this same problem big time. And I've tried most everything that's been suggested. I can write little scripts but that doesn't help me get over the fear of actually dialing. I worked in customer service for two years and spent all last summer and fall working for a political campaign and that didn't really help either. My candidate won so it was worth it but making fifty calls in an evening was the most painful thing that I could do and it never really got any easier.
posted by octothorpe at 3:55 PM on May 30, 2007

I too am phone-a-phobic, but for me it is part and parcel of my social anxiety problems. Having a job of calling people all the time didn't help - either I prayed for their VM and called at times where I KNEW I would get it, or I found reasons not to call at all.

Scripts helped, but only so much -- because you have to stop staring at the script (AND the phone) to pick up the receiver and actually dial the numbers.

This, from the girl who, in her high school years, could run up LD phonebills from hours and hours of talk!

I've actually found that the meds I'm on (Cymbalta, for both SAnx and Depression) has made it a lot easier to pick up the phone, both at work and at home. Granted, I'm not making phonecalls to old friends for fun yet, but at least I'm not fighting off the panic attacks at work and dodging my own mother when my cell rings.

Long story short - maybe its something you should speak to your doctor/psych/therapist about.
posted by Adelwolf at 9:11 AM on May 31, 2007

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