Telephone Phobia

by David Dvorkin

I've hesitated to write about this. It's such a foolish thing - so silly, surely so easy to overcome. A recent unpleasantness connected with this phobia changed my mind. I know I'm not alone in suffering from telephone phobia, a.k.a. phone phobia, and maybe putting some thoughts about telephone phobia online will be useful.

So. Telephone phobia. What is it, and is it contagious?

As to the second question, surely not. At least, I hope not.As to the first question, it's a morbid, irrational fear of the telephone. If you have telephone phobia, you might be afraid of answering the phone. Perhaps you're afraid of making phone calls. Perhaps it's merely the sound of a ringing phone that makes your heart beat faster and fills you with dread. These are all different flavors of telephone phobia.

It's hard to find objective information about telephone phobia. It's considered a type of social anxiety disorder. The more general problem seems to draw more attention from the medical community, and when you search online for telephone phobia or phone phobia, you'll instead find information about social phobia, rather than the specific problem having to do with the phone.

How common is it? If you have it, are you a rare loon? Maybe not. The only number I ran across was this one: "In 1993 it was reported that about 2.5 million people in Great Britain have telephone phobia." (From Wikipedia.) In 1993, the population of the UK was just over 58 million, so the ones suffering from telephone phobia were about 4.3% of the population. Assuming that that percentage applies to the US today, we US telephone phobics are members of an army of over 14 million people. We are legion! We are everywhere! Beware our numbers! But please don't call us.

Telephone phobia is crippling in a society that uses the telephone extensively. Most people would rather talk to you, whether in person or by phone, than write to you. They don't understand the dread that fills the telephone phobic at the mere idea of making a phone call. They don't understand his insistence on sending an e-mail instead or his tendency to ignore the need for contact in hopes that the problem will somehow resolve itself. (It never does, of course.)

Making a phone call is such a simple and common thing for most people that they probably find the idea of this phobia incomprehensible. What's the problem? Just pick up the phone and call. Anyone can do it!

But not everyone can do it. Telling the phobic to just do it is not that different from telling a color-blind man to simply try harder or to go ahead and distinguish between colors. Yes, color-blindness is caused by a physiological problem, whereas phobias are psychological, but to those suffering from a phobia, the difference is immaterial and the cause might as well be physical.

I think that most - or many - phobics see their phobias as silly and irrational, and they'd love to be rid of them. I know that I feel that way about my telephone phobia. But that doesn't make it go away. You can't wish away your phobia any more than the color-blind man can wish away his color blindness. And you can't simply shrug and go ahead and do the thing that fills you with dread, precisely because it fills you with dread. That foolish, silly, irrational dread is as impassable a barrier as a concrete wall.

What causes telephone phobia? As I said, there's little information about it online, whereas there's a fair amount of information about the broader category of social phobia. Regarding the cause of the latter, I found this laughable bit on a medical site: "The exact cause of social phobia is unknown. However, doctors believe it's a combination of environmental factors and genetics." Well, yeah. My uneducated layman's guess was just about exactly the same.

The cause doesn't really matter. The color-blind man may find the medical explanation of his condition intellectually interesting, but knowing what caused it doesn't make him any less color blind.

I can't help speculating about my own case, though.

When I was a child, we had one phone in the house, and it was reserved for the (fairly rare) use of the adults. To me, it was a mysterious and somewhat unsettling object. In addition, I started losing my hearing before puberty. It became increasingly difficult to understand what people were saying to me - or even to realize that they were speaking to me. Later, I found it difficult to understand people on the telephone. (It's easier to understand people in person because I unconsciously rely on lip reading, an ability that most people with poor hearing develop without realizing it.) My hearing loss has worsened over the decades since then. I now have hearing aids, and they help a lot in face-to-face conversations, they haven't improved my ability to comprehend a voice on the phone. In fact, frequently, telephone voices are simply incomprehensible. Maybe this combination of the phone being a strange thing and my hearing problem caused my telephone phobia. Maybe it worsened it. Maybe it had nothing to do with it. There's no way to know, but I suspect there is a connection of some sort.

The degree of dread or fear of the phone varies oddly. In the past, when I was unemployed and waiting/hoping for a call from one of the potential employers I'd applied to, I wanted the phone to ring. I was eager to answer it. We've had plumbing emergencies, and I've left a message on the plumber's voice mail and then waited impatiently for the phone to ring. Still, even in those cases, it's easier for me to answer a desired call than it is to actually make a necessary call.

When a telephone call is very cut and dried, such as calling the dentist's office to make an appointment, I can do it, I can make the call - although I'd probably drive there and do it in person instead, if the dentist's office were closer.

What about calling family members and friends? Shouldn't that be much easier than calling the dentist? No, it's much harder. Harder? It's impossible, or very close to it.

The more personal the call, the harder it is to make. The more detached and impersonal, the more I can be an automaton during the call. It's not so much that the impersonal call is easier to make than the personal one, because it's never easy, but it is less hard.

People with phobias and people with handicaps develop coping strategies. Often, they do it unconsciously. The lip reading I mentioned above, which is very common among people with poor hearing, is an example of unconscious coping.

One of the ways I cope with telephone phobia is to put off urgent phone calls until the absolute last possible second. At that point, I have to make the call, to avoid dire repercussions. The urgency forces me to do the deed, and so I do it, albeit with racing pulse and heightened blood pressure.

I also use e-mail instead of calling, when at all possible. I'm a word guy, an essayist, a novelist. Writing is natural for me. I've had long, warm, revelatory e-mail relationships with people I've never met in person. People, needless to say, whom I would never telephone. I love the ability to edit and refine my words, to make sure that I'm saying what I really want to say. There's no awkwardness. I'm myself. I'm open and easy and communicative. It's real communication. It's what telephone calls ought to be but aren't. Telephone calls are awkward and stupid and tense and frightening and “Oh, God, this is awful, have I done my duty yet, can I hang up now?” E-mail lets me carry on meaty conversations that I could never manage on the phone and would have great trouble with in person. After all, it's not the people I'm anxious to avoid; rather, it's the very act of using the telephone.

I said that people with phobias develop coping strategies to deal with them. Coping strategies are a way to negotiate society despite being handicapped by the phobia. But coping strategies offer more than a way to get by in a society that's built for people without those phobias. They are also a way to disguise the phobias. No, more than that: the coping strategies are a way to hide the existence of the phobias, to keep other people from realizing that you have them.

Let me revert to the analogy of hearing loss. People like me, who have trouble hearing and understanding what others are saying, learn to smile and nod in a hopefully non-committal way so that the people who are talking to us will think we understood them. It's a silly tactic, and it results in misunderstanding and miscommunication, but we hard-of-hearing types tend to think that It's better than constantly asking other people to repeat themselves. In much the same way, people with phobias learn to seem not to have them, to be just like everyone else. We don't want others to realize that we're hampered - crippled - by our psychological shackles. We don't want others to know that those shackles exist. Most of the time, we may cope fairly well. Every now and then, we don't cope at all.

The recent unpleasantness I mentioned at the beginning was a case of not coping. it made me realize that it's time to, as you might say, come out of the closet.

I'm lucky. My wife, Leonore, is extraordinarily understanding and supportive. She hadn't known about this phobia of mine (see how good my coping strategies are?), but she was completely sympathetic once I told her. Others are not that lucky. People with phobias can't count on support from their nearest and dearest - not to mention strangers.

it's a different matter if you have a visible physical handicap. If your problem is physical and visible, society is at least somewhat willing to accommodate you. (Although even then, inevitably, callous jerks abound.) Phobias are invisible, however. And they tend to be odd, weird, bizarre, incomprehensible. People without them often think that phobias are an affectation. They think you're pretending.

I think that's why it's so important to talk about them. The world needs to be educated about them. Also, people with phobias need to assert themselves. For their own sake, they need to learn to be unapologetic and forthright.

Now, they don't need to be proud. For God's sake, let's not have a wave of Phobia Pride. Who can be proud of being afraid of the telephone?

What we can do, what we should do, is to tell the world, and especially those closest to us, that this is who we are. Our weird flaws and handicaps are part of us. Accept us and love us as we are, or fuck off.

Wasn't that empowering?