Phone fear: when (and why) did we start asking permission to call people first?

Asking permission is a common courtesy we extend for most interactions, but should we really have to ask first before calling friends and family? Anita Ghosh examines when and why we all got so scared of the sound of the phone ringing.

I’d been trying to schedule a time to chat with my friend Charlotte over WhatsApp for weeks. We’d set aside some time only for one of us to rearrange at the last minute and, lost in the confusion of conflicting times and dates, we never got around to talking after all.

With our next phone date pending somewhere in WhatsApp purgatory, I wasn’t expecting Charlotte’s name to flash up impromptu one Sunday afternoon, and I’ll admit, I half expected some ‘Big News’. But as we finished chatting about nothing in particular, tossing out the usual promises to catch up more, she made a revelation: “You can just call me you know?”

And you know what? I think I’d forgotten I could. Ringing someone spontaneously just for a chat was reserved for about five people, including my mum, my 94-year-old grandad, two best pals and my boyfriend (who let’s face it, is never usually more than a three-metre distance from me right now), and even then, I’m still rubbish at picking up.  

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Don’t get me wrong, once upon a time, I used to live for an unscheduled call. The sound of my mum yelling my name from the kitchen as the phone rang, twisting the phone cord around my fingers as I gossiped to the same friend I’d left at the school gates just hours earlier. “What else do you possibly have to say?” my brother would bemusedly ask, missing the point entirely. Random, pointless phone calls to friends you’d spent all day with was an essential post-school ritual, a key building block in some of my most solid friendships I still have today.

But with a staggering 75% of millennials now preferring to text than call, what changed?

Like many millennial love stories, our relationship history with our phones is complex, messy and probably not all that healthy. A generation bridged between two digital ages – we still remember the power of the house phone, where one phone was rationed between a whole household, but we’re also the ones who’ve invited smartphones intrusively into our lives with open arms. Turns out somewhere between discovering Snake on our Nokia 3210s and WhatsApp on our smartphones, we just grew out of spontaneously calling. Instead, we replaced the killing time calls, the I’m lost calls and even the S.O.S terrible date calls, with WhatsApps, voice notes and perhaps a gentle slide into your DMs.  

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Has Covid changed our communication habits?

The thing is, pre-lockdown, there was so much background noise (ie you were busy having a life), you’d hardly notice someone not answering the phone. We were constantly in touch, everyone was busy, so what was the issue if your friend didn’t pick up to keep you company on the night bus home? You’d just text instead. 

But since Covid, there’s been a noticeable shift in calling (call time jumped 50% during the first month of lockdown) as it quickly became a fundamental way to maintain human connection, although for many of us (myself included) a call out of the blue still feels strange and unfamiliar. This, in part, can be attributed to our whole lives being moved online.

A 9-5 job, once full of face-to-face meetings, is now defined by 50-minute Zoom calls. We know who we’re going to talk to, what we’re going to talk about and, most importantly, when the conversation will end. And, over the past few months, this dynamic has crept into our personal lives too: scheduled video calls, pre-recorded voicenotes and so many WhatsApps. If it’s not pre-planned, it’s at least in our control when we respond. Phoning spontaneously has become at odds with every part of our life and evokes similar feelings to dropping in on someone unannounced – and let’s face it, we all know how awkward it is when the doorbell rings and you’re in the kitchen dancing to Laura Branigan’s Gloria in your knickers. 

What’s behind our hang-ups?

However, for many millennials, it’s bigger than an annoyance you’ll deal with later.

Telephonophobia is on the rise, with a recent survey indicating 76% of millennials feel anxious when the phone rings. 

This is something my friend Becky identifies with. A successful career in comms (where she talks a lot), the life and soul of any party (where she talks a lot), yet when the phone rings, she struggles to get over the psychological barrier she feels in picking up. “Generally, my phone ringing sends me into panic,” she tells me. “Even when it’s my family, even more so when the call is spontaneous and even worse during lockdown. An unplanned phone call sets off a fight or flight reaction within me.” 

In the majority of cases like these, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, Hilda Burke, explains anxiety usually stems from the interaction itself rather than the phone ringing: “Without time to prepare, we panic about whether we’ll say the right thing or reveal too much of ourselves which we’ll regret later,” she says. 

It’s true, in the real world we have time to draft and redraft that message or filter and re-filter that photo. “In a social media age, we’re in control of how we present ourselves, even if it’s not a true reflection of how we’re feeling. On the phone, all of that gets stripped away and in the moment that can feel untolerable,” Hilda adds.

There’s no denying, someone’s voice carries emotions that are much harder to hide and often create a heightened level of intimacy than a faceless text. I, for one, know when I’m caught off guard with no chance to rehearse, the barriers are down and I get to the more meaningful conversations quicker. 

This is something Megan, a London dweller originally from Belfast, has found over the past year, where spontaneous calls have revived fading friendships. “Before Covid, no-one back home could ever find the time to chat, or when we did, conversations were rushed and full of small talk. Eventually we started to drift,” she says. But as her days became emptier, she began picking up the phone to friends randomly, incorporating them into her everyday moments. “No-one was doing much of anything, so what harm could a little call to show I was thinking of them do?” Megan muses, “Spontaneous calls have felt a much more effective way of keeping friendships alive which right now, feels more important than ever.” 

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Ultimately, it really comes down to the person and their preferences. Some of us can chat for hours, while others are anxiously counting down the minutes as if they still cost 10p. 

Hilda explains that which camp we fall into is partly out of our control: “Our preference in how we communicate is in part linked to our learning style. People who are more auditory in their style, are more likely to want to chat on the phone; others need visual stimulation so will prefer a text.” In the same way you wouldn’t suggest a trip up the Empire State Building to someone who had a fear of heights, why would you call a friend you knew hated to chat on the phone?

Especially right now, it feels like we’re all just trying to get through the days the best we can. If you’re anything like me, some days I just can’t seem to find the time to call my closest friends back despite my calendar never being emptier; others I’m desperate to hear the sound of a loved one’s voice on the other end of the phone. Perhaps the best thing we can do is communicate our needs and meet somewhere in the middle. Call if you want to, and we promise we’ll pick up if we can, or at least text you back to suggest another time. 

Images: Getty/Westend61

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