I have a fear of telephones. More specifically, it’s a fear of answering or talking on the phone. Telephobia, it’s called.
Telephobia is recognized as an offshoot of social anxiety disorder. I’m familiar with that, as I suffered from it after my brain injuries. But in public, I have little to no fear of speaking with people. It’s the phone that causes me to freeze in terror.
What will I say? Will I sound stupid? Will my aphasia stump me, and I’ll be gasping for words? I have to respond, on the fly, to someone whose facial expressions I can’t see? No way. Uh-uh. No thank you.
I know I could get over it—I’ve learned coping techniques—but despite all the cognitive and behavioral therapy I’ve done—I simply don’t want to talk on the phone.
Bit of a back story: when I was a kid, we had a party telephone line. I know, that probably sounds like fun to those who aren’t old enough to remember growing up in very rural Ontario. Trust me, you can’t get further from the truth. A party line, also known as a multi-party line or a shared service line, was a telephone circuit that was shared by multiple local users. In our case, several of our neighbors were on the same circuit loop.
That meant you could pick up the receiver to make a call, and discover another call was already in progress—you could listen in on the other conversation just by picking up the receiver. So, on a party line, no conversation was truly private. Countless others could hear every word you spoke. As an introverted kid, that struck fear in every cell of my body and heightened my paranoia.
The operator would connect a call to the party line, and it rang in everyone’s house. You had to listen carefully for the ringing sequence—it could be one short ring, one long ring, or one long, one short, or any combination. That’s the only way you could tell the call was for your house. Ours was one long, one short.
For a moment, let’s imagine you had to call for an ambulance. (Actually, you couldn’t, because we didn’t have ambulances out where we lived.) But if you needed to make an emergency call? You’d have to interrupt and ask the neighbor using the phone to hang up so you could do so.
Yep, party lines bumped the idea of nosy neighbors up more than a couple of notches. Nothing—NOTHING was assumed to be a private conversation between you and the person on the other end of the phone. Before social media, party lines were the quickest way to hear the latest gossip. And you’re correct, that’s probably where the game ‘broken telephone’ originated.
The idea of a party line really freaked me out as a kid. It was like talking into the great abyss—you could pretend you were simply having a conversation with a friend, but you had no idea who could be listening. Yeah. Ick.
Now, that dark unknown was creepy enough to render me suspicious of this rudimentary communication technology.
But then, there were my parents.
Although we grew up in a household where my brother and I were constantly reminded that children should be seen and not heard, at any given time we could be summoned to the telephone to speak with unseen, ‘relatively’ unknown aunts, uncles, great aunts, cousins, you name it.
This often happened at holidays, when tradition meant phoning everyone in the family or receiving their calls of festive salutations. My brother and I would be trying to hide, our noses in books, yet our dad would spot us. We’d hear my dad speak into the receiver:
“Would you like to say hello/Merry Christmas/Happy New Year to (insert child name here)?”
My brother and I would crouch further down into the chesterfield cushions, praying we were invisible.
I took to dropping everything and running to the bathroom whenever the phone rang. Goodness knows, nobody wanted to be a shit disturber, right? Wrong! Even my sacred throne of silence couldn't stop my dad.
“Cat, come to the phone, Uncle You-don’t-know would like to say Merry Christmas!”
When my dad caught on to my little charade, he put an end to it by reporting into the receiver, "She's on the toilet but she'll be here in a minute!" Ugh, how humiliating.
My brother and I knew we couldn’t get out of it. And besides, we always had the feeling we'd be miserly and rude if we didn’t want to speak—despite knowing that children should be seen and not heard. Except when the phone rang, and we were called upon to perform as polite, conversational children.
Once I knew I'd been busted, I’d slink to the phone.
“Well, Merry Christmas, young lady!” the disembodied voice on the other end of the line would greet us. “Did Santa bring you lots of presents?”
My mind would go blank. I’d freeze in terror. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember a thing Santa delivered. I couldn’t recite the requisite list. My silence spoke volumes. Would I be seen as a naughty girl, who didn’t get anything except coal? Did I sound imbecilic, with my “I dunno, lots I guess,” response? Was I being rude by not answering more wholeheartedly? Oh shoot, did the empty abyss person give me a gift? Was I supposed to say thank you? My heart raced.
“Thank you,” I’d guess. A thank you covers most responses and questions, right?
I suppose the slam-dunk reason for my telephobia came when I was 14. During one of my mom’s psychotic episodes, I was staying at a relative’s when my dad called me. He put my mom on the phone. I asked her how she was feeling (which I considered normal conversation) and she asked me who I was. Confused, I told her, “I’m your daughter,” and she insisted I was not. I could not get her to believe I was her daughter, her only daughter. The phone became my enemy that day. Life became my enemy.
Research on millennials indicates that the group in general would rather communicate by text than by traditional phone calls. That’s cool. It’s like email communication in that respect: it gives both the sender and the recipient clear, concise information without having to engage in small talk.
And folks like me (and probably those millennials) with social anxiety find speaking on the phone uncomfortable. If I have an important telephone call to make, I practice what I’m about to say before I even pick up my device. Since my brain injuries left me with mild aphasia, I make crib notes so that I remember exactly what I’m supposed to talk about. I jot down key words and phrases that I’ll no doubt go silently searching for during the call. If I’m calling the doctor, for example, I create a list of items so that I don’t forget what I called her about.
All of this seems weird, given that I can speak in front of a room full of people or an audience of hundreds and I’m more excited than I am nervous. And given that I have mild aphasia, I forget words when I’m speaking, so I make notes for every public address I make.
I can answer emails and texts all day; in fact, those who know me understand that texting is the most efficient way of communicating with me by distance. I’m comfortable with responding quickly, too.
You’d be forgiven if you thought that maybe the problem of ‘the unseen caller’ could be remedied by a video call…but no way! I don’t want anyone to see me when I’m not expecting to be seen! There’s a bit of introverted social anxiety that doesn’t rear its head very often, but I kinda like to have some control over who sees me and when. I’m a bit of a freak that way.
I’ll have friends get really annoyed with my avoidance of telephone calls. Honestly, I’d rather visit in person than carry on a catch-up on the phone. I’d rather text or set up a time for a Zoom call. There are lots of options. Because at my age, I’m not about to change. I’ve had a lifetime of telephobia, and I admit I’m not really interested in getting over it.
And besides, I admit it puts a little youthful spring in my step knowing I have something in common with millennials. It might not be fun having telephobia, but it’s cool…right? Or rad? Or copacetic? OK, what are the kids calling it these days?
About the Creator
I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.
I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.
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