Recently, my telephone phobia has been bothering me again. I’m on phone calls fairly often throughout my work day and lately, my weakness has been rearing its head every so often. I figured that if more time passed and with more practice, I would get better at it but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

I don’t inform people that I have a phobia of the telephone - because really, that simply sounds laughable. But the truth is, I really do. I have an irrational fear of making phone calls and get really stressed out when people call me. The people who know me very well tend to dismiss it off with the idea that I “hate the phone” (because I rarely pick up my phone call unless I recognize the number). I also encouraged that belief because it’s a true statement - I do hate it.

The Beginning

There never was a particularly traumatic experience which caused me to be wary of the telephone.

As a child, I only used the telephone when I make or received calls from family members and friends from school. I wasn’t conscious of any problems per say then and I can honestly admit I used to spend hours on the phone (to my dad’s annoyance) with my buddies from school chatting up nonsense.

The only time I would experience a spot of problem was when someone other than the person whom I was calling to would pick up the phone (yes, this happened in an era before personal cell phones). Then I would panic, stumble over my words as I squeezed out a simple “Um… hi … is … uh, is XXX home?”.

During my mid-teens, I was part of my high school magazine’s editorial team and put in charge of photography. One fine day, our club advisor asked me to call the professional photographer who took the classes and club group photos to inquire about the status of our prints. I still recall vividly to this day how I’d agonized making that call. It was my first “big” responsibility item as I had to initiate a phone call on a non-personal agenda and it also involved me interacting with someone much older than me as well as with a virtual stranger.

I ended up writing the whole “speech” on paper and practiced it outloud a few times before I took a deep breath and made the call. It was mostly an opening sentence that included a greeting and the purpose of the call, simply because after saying “Hi!”, my mind blanks out. While I could prepare what I would say to initiate the conversation, the killer would be to actually have an actual conversation that follows of which cannot be scripted. Fortunately, it went over smoothly and the call ended without any further issues. But wow, it was like a boulder was just lifted off my shoulders when I placed the phone handle down.

That was twenty years ago.

Today, this hasn’t changed one bit. Okay, so I’m more conscious of the problem. As a child, I just assumed it was because of my lack of interaction outside of my family and close friends, and a plain fear of talking to strangers. But as an adult, I’ve had countless phone calls with virtual strangers and every call remains an insurmountable mountain that I have to conquer. It feels silly every single time and yet, I can’t seem to help stressing out when my phone rings, or when I have to make that one phone call.

So yes, I’ll admit I still script out my call. I will write down on a piece of paper the person and/or the company name and my opening sentence. This was necessary because my brain literally blanks out when I hear the word “Hello?”. I wish I’m exaggerating here but I assure you, I’m not.

Once a call is over, I often exclaim to myself, “Phew, that was easy." It’s like I was expecting the worst possible outcome but when it all goes smoothly (99.9% of the time), I’m pleasantly surprised.

This irrational fear also extends to just a simple call to a store to ask if something is in stock or not. I’m willing to make the trip to the store just to avoid having to call them even if it was to find out that they had ran out of stock. If a friend is in the room and I had to make a call, I would usually make an excuse to get them to make the call instead. Fortunately, I’m usually more senior than them so they tend to oblige my request.

The last time I had to find a contractor to fix a problem in my house, it took half of a work day to get through maybe four phone calls. That’s simply because after the each call, I needed an hour to calm down, then to build up the confidence to make the next one. Ouch.

Strangely, I do not have the same issue with family members or with friends whom I know very well or am comfortable with. It only happens with strangers or friendly acquaintances whom I’m not close with.

To make things more irrational, I do not have a problem talking with said people IN PERSON! That’s correct. I do not have a problem interacting with people face-to-face at all, but its when I’m behind the telephone that I’m unable to form proper sentences. Naturally, I don’t have any issues chatting on the web either because it isn’t real time.

Personal Observations

Of all the work responsibilities I could have, teleconferencing is possibly the most difficult and stressful thing for me, yet one that’s completely necessary for my work. So I’ve been observing and replaying my past interactions to consider what I could do to help alleviate the problem.

I’ve discovered that there were a number of things that I could do or make known to the other end that would help alleviate the issue for me:

  • Build a rapport with the other person - If I end up being comfortable chatting with him/her, I often do not have a problem carrying a conversation. Depending on the level of familiarity, I may or may not be abrupt on the call - i.e. there is no such thing as small talk in my books. My instinct is always to find the fastest method to end the call and not drag things out unnecessarily. However, if I’m familiar enough with the other individual, or if he/she is able to carry most of the conversation, there’s certainly less stress on my being on the call for a little while longer. This step, unfortunately, does takes time to build up and it can also degenerate when there’s lack of continual contact.

  • Focus on something else - I usually have a piece of paper in front of me to doodle or write notes, or I would focus on a particular object in the room. One thing I’ve observed of myself was that the lack of a visual or ability to process any cues from the other person really throws my brain into panic mode - my brain can literally turn blank and I have trouble forming sentences (true story). It’s usually a short moment but when I do get back on track, my concentration is broken and I tend to have trouble following or focusing on the conversation after. It’s like my brain just totally checked out at that moment and I have no memory of what was spoken during those few seconds. It sounds ludicrous but I sometimes joke about having early onset Alzheimer’s. Truth be told, I might just have it but I rather laugh at myself than cry.

  • Screenshares are a boon - I have trouble explaining things out of thin air, i.e. without a visual. I need something tangible to look at or focus on, like a chart, even lines of code, etc. that may or may not be relevant to the conversation. It just helps me concentrate and explain my line of thought without any worries.

  • Avoid group chats - the larger the group is, the more uncomfortable I become. I think the ‘stranger’ element plays a role in this. In addition to that, I could be best buddies with five others in the room and when one stranger joins in the conversation, that would throw me off my kilter and you can pretty much expect not much form me after that. I don’t understand the logic but it’s very true.

Everything I’ve listed so far are examples from my own personal experience. It may sound illogical but believe me, it’s a struggle for me most of the days but as the years pass, I’ve learned to live with it. It’s just that I feel like the problem seems to rear its ugly head more often lately. A few of my co-workers who work remotely but do interact with me on a daily basis are somewhat aware of my weakness so I’ve always been grateful to them for accommodating my shortcomings. Fortunately, I’ve build a rapport with them over time which does help things a little.

Now if only I know of a cure…