We spend most of our day palming our phone. We even get nervous when we can’t find it. So why is it that when it actually comes to using a phone for its primary function, to make phone calls, many of us are shying away?


In fact, one survey of UK office workers found that 40 per cent of baby boomers and 70 per cent of millennials experience anxious thoughts when the phone rings. Gen Z are so prone to ignoring phone calls, they’ve even been called ‘generation mute’ by some.

Talking in real time can feel scarier than commenting on social media or sending messages via WhatsApp, and ‘social anxiety’ is a growing problem, with 15 million Americans currently suffering.

Telephone phobia (or ‘telephobia’) is the reluctance or fear of making or taking phone calls and although it’s been around for almost as long as there have been phones (the poet Robert Graves wrote about a fear of using the telephone in 1929), cases are officially on the rise.

At the moment, most evidence suggests this is a problem for young adults. For instance, US study of 22- to 37-year-olds found that 81 per cent felt anxious about talking on the phone. However, even older generations aren’t immune. As an ‘elder-millennial’, few things fill me with dread more than an unexpected phone call from an unknown number.

Mary Jane Copps aka ‘The Phone Lady’ has coached thousands on phone communication for almost two decades and says: "I have people are in their 50s and 60s telling me phone calls make them anxious!"

But what exactly causes this anxiety? And what can be done to overcome it? Here's the science you need to know to beat telephobia.

What causes telephobia?

The scientific consensus seems to be that it comes down to a fear of being judged. A huge amount of our cognitive energy goes towards managing what other people think of us – in other words, for the most part, we want others to like us.

Phone calls can challenge this need in several ways. Firstly, they put us in the spotlight, drawing others' attention. In fact, researchers from Cornell found that ‘halfalogues’, or conversations where we only hear one side, are more distracting than hearing both sides of any given interaction. Take a call on a train, this study suggests, and people will pay more attention to what you’re saying than if you were talking to another passenger face-to-face.

In short, we really want to avoid the judgement of anyone who may be eavesdropping. However, even if nobody else is listening in, a phone call is an inherently difficult social interaction to navigate. Mainly because it's not very social. We’ve known since the 1960s that 55 per cent of communication is visual, but on the phone, we miss out on that silent orchestra of gestures, facial expressions and body language.

Woman staring at cell phone
© Getty

"In real life, we can see if someone has an angry face or confused face, we get those cues," explains Professor Alison Papadakis, director of Clinical Psychological Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "Whereas on the phone, you may hear deadly silence. If you’re anxious, you may fill in those gaps with negative thoughts. And that can be nerve-racking."

Anxiety over the prospect of talking on the phone has increased as we’ve moved away from verbal communication, towards texting, emailing and social media comments. The voice-calling function may now be one of the least important on our phones.

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A 2020 Ofcom study found that phone calls were already dying out, with one in four of us making fewer than five calls a month. Incoming calls became associated with bad news and outgoing calls were made in often stressful situations – like calling in sick, making doctors’ appointments, or for serious conversations that didn’t feel appropriate over text. Then came the pandemic, when all of us hid behind a screen to live, work and play.

"Much of how we present ourselves now is online, so people are used to offering a curated version of themselves," says Papadakis. "This means it can be harder for young people especially to realise that in a phone conversation, you may not have control."

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With written communication, we have time to gather our thoughts and edit before pressing ‘send’. On a call, anything can happen. For Zoomers who’ve grown up with the internet at their fingertips, never knowing the tactile comfort of twisting a curly landline cord around a finger mid-chat, this can come as a shock.

Phone calls are more time-consuming than texts and can feel like an intrusion, interrupting our train of thought or even our day. So we avoid them. Only avoiding social situations is far worse for our mental health – a National Academies of Sciences report found a consistent relationship between social isolation, depression and anxiety. Plus, young people who can’t express themselves verbally may suffer from behavioural problems, emotional and psychological difficulties, according to educational psychologist Dr Zoe Owen.

In summary, phone calls can represent several threats. Not only may you fear that others may be eavesdropping and judging your social skills, but the calls themselves don't allow you to see social cues. Others may simply find calls as too spontaneous, especially compared to the manicured version of reality we're all too used to portraying online.

Fortunately, however, we can train ourselves to be more conversationally resilient.

How to get over telephobia, according to science

Make micro-calls

"The best approach is exposure therapy," says Papadakis: "For some people it’s about ripping the band-aid off by just making that first call, then they may start to feel better. Or you can take the scaffold approach."

This is where we put ourselves through the thing we’re scared of in small steps, building up slowly until it feels fine. So if we’re frightened of talking on the phone, we should try a thirty-second call first of all. Then a minute. Then two. Before gradually increasing to a chat-appropriate call length that feels right for us. Copps suggests phoning family and friends instead of texting, for two consecutive days, since "getting into the habit of calling familiar people is a good starting point".

Make (very brief) notes before a call

Making notes can help, for everything from work calls to virtual doctor’s appointments and even catch-ups with friends. "Having agenda with bullet points is usually more helpful than writing a script," says Papadakis.

This works regardless of whether calls are incoming or outgoing. "Many people feel worse when they’re the ones being called," says Copps, "but just listening to why someone is calling, then repeating it back to them puts you back in control. And never be afraid to say ‘I don’t know the answer right now, but I’ll find out’. It’s always a perfectly acceptable response."

Take perspective

We can also take heart from the fact that we overestimate how much we’re ever actually messing things up on the phone. According to research led by Professor Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University, we significantly overestimate how noticeable our embarrassing behaviours are to others. We also underestimate how much our conversation partners like us and enjoy our company – an illusion Yale researchers call ‘the liking gap’. After we have conversations, we are liked more than we know.

Fake a smile

Finally, we should choose our expression wisely. According to a study by scientists at the University of Portsmouth, people can actually ‘hear’ our smile.

"When we listen to people speaking, we may be picking up on all sorts of cues, even unconsciously, which help us to interpret the speaker," said lead author of the report, Dr Amy Drahota. Not only does smiling help us sound more confident, it also makes us feel happier. And it’s very hard to frown and smile at the same time.


Psychologists at the University of Cardiff found that those who received frown-inhibiting Botox injections were happier and less anxious – not because they felt more attractive (they didn’t, worse luck), but because they couldn’t look anxious – even if they tried. So the next time we’re experiencing that sweaty-palmed feeling, we should smile like we mean it. Or at least, ‘not frown’. And then pick up the phone anyway – turns out it’s good to talk.

About our expert, Professor Alison Papadakis

Alison Papadakis is Director of Clinical Psychological Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses on how young adults deal with stress, and what coping strategies are more effective. Her work has been published in journals including Psychological Methods and the Journal Of Personality.

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Helen is a journalist and author of How To Be Sad and The Atlas of Happiness.