Why for some people, answering a call is a ‘fate worse than death’

Carly Gibbs

Weekend writer

Talking on the phone can leave Gen Z and Millennials anxious, giving a new interpretation to the Carly Rae Jepsen song lyrics, ‘...Here’s my number, so call me, MAYBE’.

Imagine it’s Monday, and your diary lies open before you. The week stretches ahead, and there is a lot to do.

Work meetings, sports practice, a birthday dinner, a hair appointment, and… Hold on. Someone is calling you.

It’s an unknown number. Your body freezes, and your heart rate increases. You hesitate, with your thumb hovering over your cellphone’s green accept icon. Nope, you think. You mute the call and let it ring.

This anxiety-ridden refusal, dubbed “telephonophobia”, might seem odd if you’re in your early early-40s and up. However, it’s common for Gen Z and Millennials, says Auckland University of Technology (AUT) postgraduate supervisor and digital wellbeing specialist Dr Lena Waizenegger, 35.

Telecommunications surveys have shown that picking up the phone can lead to feelings of anxiety in up to 50 per cent of Gen Z and Millennials because of the uncertainty of what the call might be about. Texting is deemed less invasive.

Waizenegger says these generations also associate phone calls with emergencies and bad news — another reason to get sweaty when they receive one.

In addition, they feel that voice-to-voice phone conversations are time-consuming.

“Busyness is almost like a disease,” Waizenegger says. “In this lifestyle of busyness, it fits in quite well that we just flick through a text whenever we are available.”

Or, you could send a voice note. “It’s also really convenient because you can listen to them at double speed.”

What can’t be said in a text?

One person who knows what it’s like to be in demand is the newly crowned Miss Earth New Zealand 2024, Angela Rowson, 18.

The Rotorua teen, who also works fulltime, says her phone has been “blowing up” since she won the title on June 1.

Phone calls are welcome if they’re from someone she knows or if they’re essential — “like booking a plumber” — but she gets nervous if they’re from an unknown number.

Gen Zer Angela Rowson finds texting less daunting. Photo / Shelz Media
Gen Zer Angela Rowson finds texting less daunting. Photo / Shelz Media

If she’s busy, she’ll sometimes let the call ring out and send a follow-up text: “Hey, I’m busy right now. I’m sorry I missed your call. May I ask who this is? And how can I help?’

Texting is less “daunting” because it gives her time and information to consider what she might say if it’s later followed up by an important call.

Most Gen Zers won’t answer a call if the number showing isn’t in their contacts list, fearing it to be “spam”. Instead, she says they prefer instant messaging and video calls, mainly via Snapchat.

Waizenegger says phone calls require “synchronous” communication and the ability to react to what has been said appropriately in terms of content and tone. Hence, it requires social and emotional skills. Instant messaging means you can reflect on your responses, revise the text, and use emojis sometimes to hide your real emotions: “Texting is usually a safer way to communicate where we don’t overexpose ourselves,” she says.

A ‘fate worse than death’

This year, Sydney Morning Herald contributor and Millennial January Jones wrote that some Millennials think talking on the phone is a “fate worse than death” even though she enjoys it: “When it comes to annoying communication methods, for me, it’s writing 100 text messages when a simple call would have sufficed”.

The Washington Post, however, disagreed. Last year, it published a story entitled, “The new phone call etiquette: Text first and never leave a voicemail”.

Waizenegger concurs that voicemail is “quite outdated” and “very few people use it”.

It’s more common to ask (or text), ‘Is it okay if I ring you quickly?’ rather than just doing it, even in work settings where you might overstep someone’s “connectivity boundaries”, she says. “Connectivity boundaries are idiosyncratic for each person and help them to get focused work done in an interconnected world.”

Even businesses pick up the phone less, referring clients to online booking forms.

Digital wellbeing specialist Dr Lena Waizenegger. Photo / Supplied
Digital wellbeing specialist Dr Lena Waizenegger. Photo / Supplied

Breathe, smile, don’t overthink it

Jill Cachemaille, director of Tauranga recruitment company the Staffroom, says part of its recruiting process is completing a “phone screen”, which determines the factors that determine whether an application progresses.

“So, picking up the phone increases a candidate’s chance of being considered,” she says.

Once the relationship is established through phone contact or a face-to-face meeting, texting to confirm details is the fastest way to send and receive information from candidates.

Most employers use email and phone conversations as their top communication methods.

She says when people have a lot of information to cover, the phone is easier and more efficient for communication, whereas texting long messages takes time. This misses the opportunity to build a relationship. A combined approach is “acceptable”.

So, what should you do if you need to make or take a call but feel nervous?

I Googled it, and one suggestion was to cut out pictures from a magazine of smiling men and women and look at them while you’re on the phone so you feel more comfortable with how the other person is receiving your conversation.

I also asked the etiquette and deportment coach for the Miss Rotorua pageant, Nataria Hepi-Te Keeti.

Her number one tip to beat anxiousness on the phone is to “breathe” beforehand.

“Inhale through your nose and breathe out at the count of four,” she says. “You’re triggering your vagus nerve that’s connected to your anxiety.

”The second thing to do is smile while you talk.

“It doesn’t matter that the person on the phone can’t see you, but it lifts your energy,” she advises. “If you’re not smiling, you can hear it in the monotone of your voice.”

Thirdly, don’t overthink it. Also, phone confidence comes with practice.

Communication through a different channel

If all that non-Boomers are doing is texting, that has to be bad for connection, right?

Waizenegger says no. “They are talking vividly amongst one another, not face-to-face, but more through technology-mediated communication. They are indeed in contact; it’s just through a different channel.”

That said, conversing is an art, and if a face-to-face conversation is lost completely, people might lose the ability to think on the spot and handle impromptu situations, change their tone or inflection, pause, and adjust their response.

Moreover, body language, voice, and eyes transfer our real emotions. Depending on the situation, a text might be appropriate, but picking up the phone and talking — hearing tone and argument — is a much richer conversation.

She says the future will depend on what tech companies develop regarding tech functionalities, social developments, and the preferences of the next generation.

“There is now so much content on all the social media platforms, and with artificial intelligence and machine-generated content, perhaps we will go back and want true emotions and more personal interactions.”

Carly Gibbs is a weekend magazine writer for the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post and has been a journalist for two decades. She is a former news and feature writer, for which she’s been both an award finalist and winner.