A lot of people I speak to tell me they don’t like phoning in English. When I ask them about this, they usually tell me that they don’t like phoning much anyway, but English is even worse. I get this. I don’t like the idea of phoning that much myself, although I love having conversations (once they’re actually happening).

I decided to look into this. Why is it that lots of people don’t like phoning? And what can you do about it?

To start off, I did some research. This is what I found out about phone anxiety:

  • It varies from putting off phoning to having physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety
  • For some people it’s not an issue at all
  • For some people, phoning is an issue from time to time, depending on their mood, for example
  • Even sales staff are increasingly reporting anxiety about phoning
  • Phone anxiety is increasing because of the new ways we are communicating

Why does phoning make a lot of people anxious?

One of the best ways to look at a communication medium is its characteristics. If we look at phoning, we find out:

  • You ask a question or make a comment and the feedback is immediate
  • It’s all about reacting quickly to the other person
  • You can’t see the other person (unless you’re facetiming)
  • They can’t see you
  • Phoning is often used in cold-calling
  • Sometimes, you have to take notes at the same time
  • You rely on sound for understanding what the other person is communicating
  • How you speak determines how the other person understands you

This makes phoning very different to letter writing (where you have longer to decide what to say), different to WhatsApp (where the answer doesn’t happen to be immediate) and different to face-to-face communication (where you can see the other person and have more signals from their body language to react to).

Body language cues are important when phoning
We miss body language cues when phoning

This means that phone anxiety could be to do with being uncertain how to read someone’s mood, without visual cues. It might be about feeling hurried. Or about feeling distant without seeing someone (if you are a visual thinker). And you might be feeling anxious about not getting the thing done which you were phoning about.

Phoning in English

Making phone calls in English, can take phone anxiety up a notch. You may feel nervous about being able to understand enough to keep the conversation going. It might be pronunciation or saying something in the wrong way which makes you feel worried. You may be worried you could make a fool of yourself because of a mistake.

That’s a lot of reasons why people don’t like phoning in English much.

Phoning nowadays

Once upon a time, back in the Communication Middle Ages, we basically just had conversations, letters and phoning.

Conversations were similar to now, except we didn’t hear pings all the time. Letters were a more usual way of communicating than they are now, because phoning was expensive. You could take your time to write one and you looked forward to letters arriving. Very often, they were like an unexpected present. We used letters for anything formal: this was how you put something on paper. People phoned each other if you lived too far away from one another to speak to each other directly and if you needed to communicate something more quickly than in a letter.

Fast forward to 2019. On my phone I have WhatsApp, IG, Facebook messenger, Zoom, email, text messages and a phone. I’ve probably forgotten quite a few – LinkedIn for one.

Messaging apps are alternative for phoning
How many messaging apps do you have on your phone?

I have lots of ways to communicate, depending on who I want to speak to and how. I can speak to companies using these more personal forms of communication too. All in all, the rules of communication have changed dramatically.

Communication is becoming more informal

One of the things I always say is that communication is getting more and more informal. In a lot of languages, you have a formal ‘You’ and an informal ‘You’ and you can see them moving towards the informal version. English is also becoming more informal, but here it’s more subtle than ‘Sie’ or ‘Du’. In English, it’s all about the words you use, the words you leave out, long forms or short forms, special ways of saying things, the subjects you can talk about.

Communication is becoming more visual

There are so many ways we can communicate now. And, of course, there are emoticons. Emoticons are just like hieroglyphics, but with modern images. This development is really exciting, because it gives us a whole new vocabulary. Emoticons allow us to express our emotions more easily in writing (as long as we both understand what it means).

Emoticons help us to understand emotions in written language

We are all using images way more than we used to. In fact, IG and Facebook are all about images or videos, with a bit of text to explain them. Hashtags link us to other people. We like images to connect to others on the other side of the world, who we have never met and probably will never meet.

We are learning a whole new visual communication language

Is it any wonder that we don’t know what to do with phoning anymore? Phoning is tricky to place in all the ways we have to communicate. Why would you phone when you could use an email to communicate with a company and get everything in writing? And why make a phone call when you could send an app with a smiley emoticon to make sure the other person knows you’re okay with something?

Let’s face it, we’re phoning less and less, so we are also getting less and less practise at it.

How to approach phoning in English

Try this out to see if it helps:

  1. Think about your approach. Is phoning the easiest and most appropriate way to do what you want to do? If it isn’t, choose an alternative.
  2. Prepare your conversation. Who do you want to speak to? Why do you want to speak to them? What do you want to achieve? What will you say if you don’t understand the other person? Write all these down.
  3. Practise pronouncing any tricky words or phrases.
  4. If you are cold-calling, practise what you’ll say to objections like “I’ll get him to call you back”.  
  5. Decide where to phone. In a busy office, surrounded by others, may not be the best space for you. Find a place that works for you.
  6. Set yourself a time and plan how long it will take.
  7. Try to be as calm as possible before phoning. Go outside in the sunshine. Meditate for a few minutes.
  8. Or it may help to pep yourself up in some way. Listen to some happy music. Run on the spot.
  9. Make the phone call at the time you plan to.
  10. Give yourself a pat on the back for making the call. Now, plan your next call!  
You could just have some fun with phoning like this guy

What about you?

What are your main concern about phoning in English? How do you deal with them?  

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