Long Reads

Unexpected phone calls: confessions of people who hate answering the phone

This one goes out to anyone who has ever pretended they can’t hear their ringing phone

“Isn’t it funny? You hear a phone ring and it could be anybody. But a ringing phone has to be answered, doesn’t it?”

Kiefer Sutherland growled those famous words at us back in 2002’s Phone Booth and, at the time, they were 100% accurate. In the years that have passed, though, technology has moved on. Nowadays, everyone has a smartphone, entire generations have grown up without ever using a landline, and when’s the last time you saw a phonebooth IRL, hmm?

Perhaps all of these changes go some way towards explaining why, whenever someone dares phone me without sending prior warning via WhatsApp, I immediately panic. 

Sometimes, I’ll walk into another room and leave my phone behind to ring from afar. Sometimes, I’ll turn it upside down onto the table and pretend I haven’t noticed. And, very occasionally, I’ll answer it, eyes screwed up against the tirade of bad news I always assume is coming my way when I get an outta-the-blue call.

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I’m not the only one who feels this way, of course. When I broach the subject with Stylist’s Alyss Bowen, she confesses: “Whenever my phone rings it fills me with a sense of dread and I have no idea why. My mind immediately skips to ’something bad has happened’ or ‘I am in trouble’ so I tend to either a) ignore it and slowly move away from my phone like it’s a bomb or b) pick up and quickly say, ‘What’s happened, what’s wrong, are you OK?!?’”

My colleague Jazmin Kopotsha, too, views an unscheduled phone call as a Very Big Problem.

“There are very specific things that cross my mind whenever someone calls me,” she explains matter-of-factly. “If it’s my mum, it means I’m in trouble. If it’s my boyfriend, it means I’m late to meet him or did something stupid when I was drunk. If it’s one of my best friends, it means they’ve screwed up somehow and need some advice. If it’s one of my best friend’s parents, someone has clearly died.

“Irrational? Maybe. But it makes so much sense in those first moments of panic as my phone buzzes in my hand.”

Unexpected phone calls: nowadays, we are tethered to our smartphones.
Unexpected phone calls: nowadays, we are tethered to our smartphones.

One friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, adds: “I view all unplanned phone calls as a personal attack, quite frankly. The ultimate pass-agg move. Especially if the call comes moments after I’ve sent a WhatsApp, because then they know I’m holding my phone and there’s no escape. 

“And yet, even then, I will just hold my phone and stare at it until it rings out, before ringing whoever dared disturb me back a few minutes later. I’m a weirdo, right?”

Lucinda Roberts, meanwhile, has come up with an entire strategy in a bid to avoid fielding out-of-the-blue calls.

“If I’m not in the mood to be chatty, I send well-timed messages on WhatsApp during the working day, so as to minimise the chance of a reply by phone call,” she says, telling me she’s “terrified” of a ringing phone.

“At the weekend, it’s obviously much harder.”

And another former colleague tells me: “If my boss ever calls me without warning, I immediately assume I’m getting fired. Every single time. What does that say about me?”

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Like I say, we’re all stressed by unexpected calls – which makes zero sense, as a) we all love our phones, and b) myself and every person I spoke to genuinely loves chatting on these beloved pieces of tech, so long as we know we’re going to be doing so. (Lots has been written about the millennial fear of the phone call; this isn’t that).

So, what’s the deal? Well, I have a theory.

Speaking from a purely millennial POV (sorry Gen Xers), things were different growing up. Phone calls were scheduled ahead of time, so that you could reserve the landline and chat without bothering your mum (“Ring me between 7 and 8pm, yeah?”), and mobile phones were predominantly used for texting. Because “minutes” – remember when we used to buy minutes? – were expensive, and the landline bill wasn’t really our problem. 

Well, it wasn’t our problem until, y’know, the end of the month, when dad would come in brandishing the bill and demanding to know who we talked to for over 108 minutes one fateful Wednesday night.

Coronavirus lockdown: how to say no to phone calls when you have nowhere else to be
Unexpected phone calls: all we want, damn it, is for people to pre-plan their calls.

Unexpected phone calls, back then, were definitely not treats. Rarely, it would be an elderly relative who wasn’t aware of the system. Other times, it would be someone trying to sell you new windows or some such boring cold-call shit. And the other 90% of the time, it was a Very Important Phone Call (which covers everything from life-altering bad news to a stern-sounding teacher wishing to speak to your mum about you. Gulp).

All of this, of course, meant that any phone calls received after 9pm were viewed as a potentially upsetting bombshell waiting to happen. And, if it wasn’t, the person on the other end of the line would forever be described as ‘rude’ by your parents. Because there was an etiquette, y’know?

And, if you don’t know, this Curb Your Enthusiasm bit will help you get to grips with it:

Nowadays, we’re tethered to our phones. They’ve become less of a luxury, more an extension of ourselves, and we’re basically contactable 24/7. But… y’know, by WhatsApp. Or text. Or voicenote. Or a pre-planned phone call.

An unexpected call, though? Well, that can catch you off-guard, especially when you’re not ready to deal with the conversation. And, in a world where messages, emails and DMs pile up, it can feel invasive because it demands an instant response: we need time to respond on our own terms, damn it.

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So maybe, this one time, the best solution is the simplest one: only answer the phone when you want to. Tell your pals and relatives that you’d prefer it if they drop you a text before calling. Or, if that makes you feel weird, miss the call and then message them to let them know you’re busy right now, but will call them back in five minutes.

Because, just sometimes, taking a few moments to psych yourself up and get yourself feeling mentally prepared for a “quick chat” is really all you need. 

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