woman afraid to answer the phone
rawpixel / Pixabay

Telephonophobia – reluctance or fear of making or taking phone calls

It’s no joke. Some people, especially millennials, really do hate talking on the phone and will do anything to avoid it. The image of a telephone-adverse, inward-looking, socially awkward millennial has become something of a cultural trope.

There are two camps of commentators weighing in on this social phenomenon, those who are sympathetic and see the logic of avoiding phone conversations vs. those who insist millennials should just pick up the phone and get over themselves.

Both have good points to make. Everyone has been kept on the phone by someone who wasted their time or received a phone call that was intrusive or unwanted. On the other side, most of us have witnessed the power resolution power of a phone call or picked up the phone to clarify some ambiguous detail that just couldn’t get hammered out over email or text.

Nor is it entirely clear that telephonphobia is actually a new thing. There have always been people who hated talking on the phone and avoided it, refusing to answer, and sending all their calls to voicemail, and before that, the answering machine. Some people aren’t communicative by nature, or they process information more slowly. Email and text give people time to craft their remarks and take their time in responding. As communications technology has become more diverse, people have more and more options to revert to.

And it isn’t just millennials that feel this way. Many people have come to rely on email, IM and chat for the bulk of their communications.

A phone call, for many people, is far too directly confrontational.

But while the telephobe may hate talking on the phone, they don’t necessarily mind texting and chatting. Many people have come to rely on IM or other applications, where they can use symbols like emojis and gifs to communicate and avoid the awkwardness and uncertainty of an actual conversation. In social media, one can simply post their own thoughts or material, and avoid a dialogue altogether.

Does this signify the demise of civilized discourse, and the beginning of a new age of insular solitude, where algorithms make all our decisions for us, solving all our problems, while we glide frictionlessly past one another, exchanging digital representations of our faces, and avoiding any and all confrontation or unpleasantness?

Do we really hate talking on the phone so much?

Or is something else going one?

Tap, swipe, type and click

After all, it certainly isn’t our phones that we hate. According to a recent Gallup poll, nearly half of all smartphone users can’t even imagine life without their phone. By all accounts, we adore our smartphones, carrying them everywhere with us, sleeping with them, and touching them an average of 2,617 times a day. More intense users are touching their phones as many as 5,427 times a day.

The instant gratification of digital engagement drives us from moment to moment, seeking out the next neurological ‘hit’. After all, smartphones are designed to be physically manipulated, with touchscreens, and the cognitive rewards of using a phone have come with touch—at least up until now.

As voice-commanded applications and search become increasingly relevant and efficient, it will be interesting to see how this impacts the kind of relationship we have with our phones—and if we will begin to gain more a more objective distance.

Rapid adoption of voice tech

People are definitely demonstrating a willingness to talk to their phones, and are readily adopting the technology where it provides ease of use. According to data from MindMeld (highlighted in Mary Meeker’s 2016 report), 41% of people using voice search had only started using it in the last 6 months.

Still, talking to a voice assistant or application is quite different from speaking to another human being. Speaking to someone directly is really, truly fraught with all kinds of uncertainty. We let go of control—or at least our illusion of it.

Risk and opportunity

The same reasons phone calls can be so effective also makes them risky. We’re more vulnerable on a phone call, without time to prepare our next comment, or to censor our first reaction. When we’re talking to someone we don’t know, or someone who might want something from us, it can seem even more overwhelming.

Talking on the phone can solve problems and also uncover them. Speaking our thoughts aloud makes us think critically about them. Sometimes we don’t know how great an idea is until we hear it—and other times, the opposite happens.

Social anxiety

There a certain amount of social anxiety that comes with talking on the phone, particularly for generations who grew up with the smartphone as the dominant form of communications technology. Millennials may never have answered a family phone, fielded questions from strangers, or learned the kind of small talk that warms up a call and builds the rapport that is the foundation of successful verbal communication.

When asked to talk to strangers on the phone at work, millennials will naturally default to a more familiar medium when they can. The right mix of technological support and training can help, but, first of all, is there any value to having conversations, or is text-based/visual communication really enough?

The evolution of conversational interface

You’ve got mail

When email was widely adopted in the 1990’s, it disrupted the inefficiencies of internal memos, letters, fax and other 20th century communications technology, distributed through snail mail and the company mailroom. The speed of business increased, and companies saved money. But what originally began as an efficiency had become a time sink, in some executive’s opinions, by the early 21st century. Email bans and email management protocols began to emerge as people began to sort through the incredible mass of correspondence that landed in their inbox each day.

Most people are juggling a few different email accounts at this point, and using various filters. It’s hard to get attention in email, although it’s not a channel marketers can afford to completely forsake, and while it remains a critical tool for both internal and external communication, most experts agree that it has limited usefulness and a potentially deleterious impact on productivity. Some are already even predicting its demise, even as soon as 2020.

Let’s be friends

Social media took the world by storm and set the stage for communicating in microbursts and chunks of multimedia. Facebook was launched in 2004, and since that time social media has completely altered the fabric of social and economic life. While it has given a voice to the voiceless and has brought awareness to many different perspectives, social media tends overall to have a polarizing effect. It trends towards binaries and oppositions, while more balanced views can become obscured. Research shows that emotionally charged posts are shared more frequently, while more nuanced or critical ideas don’t have the same social value. While social media has many positive attributes, for example allowing dispersed friends and families to stay in contact, it has also created a very real divide between real life and online life, a subtle but difficult to broach boundary.

Short message service (SMS)

By 2010, the text revolution was upon us. Social media had trained us all to think and communicate in short quips, and SMS was a natural forum for continuing the ‘convo’. Today text is still incredibly popular, even as it is being disrupted by branded messaging apps. According to Forrester Research, six billion SMS messages are sent every day. Chat services like Facebook messengers and WhatsApp have come to dominate the space as well. The short format of SMS tends to keep conversations on track and focused on a single topic, unlike email. Because SMS has an open rate exceeding 99%, SMS is a great way to get someone’s attention. Text can be a great way to convey timely, low-context information, or to share a simple, inspiring message or idea. For having in-depth conversations, though, text messaging is not ideal. Communicating complex ideas or reaching a consensus is difficult through text message. The more you text, the more opportunity there is for a misunderstanding.

Messaging platforms

Messaging platforms like Slack and Skype deliver the immediacy of SMS across a platform designed to accommodate teams and allow more robust discussions. Conversations and threads are visible and searchable, allowing transparency and access. Platforms like Slack can be a great tool, particularly for remote teams, for collaboration, and building a comprehensive archive for projects. While Slack is a great place to share and store mission critical data, it isn’t a substitute for conversation, and has the same drawbacks as text, as it isn’t ideal for in-depth conversation, negotiation, or ideation.

Voice communication

Since the introduction of the telephone in the 19th century, no other innovation in the field of communications has changed daily lives as much, particularly when you consider the impact of the smartphone and its app ecosystem. Smartphones have had the fastest adoption curve of any technology in history, according to MIT Technology Review. In 2017, mobile devices outnumber the total human population. But what no one really expected was how voice would somehow be sidelined by the digital revolution.

All of a sudden, voice communication was no longer a separate channel but lived alongside text, video, and image on the data network. And as voice began to compete for bandwidth with other media, it’s quality was less constant. VoIP phone service was often plagued with echoes, jitter and feedback, and even if the line was clear, background noise and distractions made voice a less ideal interface for communication on the go. It was easier to send a text or email from the train or a noisy convention center. But very soon this may no longer be the case. Upgrades in networks, hardware and software are coming that will allow voice to be heard again, even in a noisy world. Meanwhile, companies are deploying AI and machine learning to finally give the voice experience the digital makeover it deserves.

The investment in voice telephony

Even as the landline era comes to a close, mobile networks are investing heavily to upgrade mobile networks with packet-based transmission, including LTE and IP, and IP-based signaling, in order to improve voice quality for cellular networks. The report also found that mobile operators have allocated 40% of their rated network performance to improved voice telephony.

As part of that effort, they have increasingly moved beyond traditional narrowband telephony towards HD-voice, transmitting in a wider audio spectrum up to 7000 Hz. The next generation of voice being developed will be a full-HD voice quality codec EVS (Enhanced Voice Services) that extends the audio spectrum towards 16,000 Hz.

Voice quality and customer experience define the arena where mobile networks will compete in the years ahead. Apple and Samsung and LG are building EVS handsets to support this upgrade from a hardware perspective. Noise canceling technology and voice recognition will personalize and adapt the voice experience to better serve mobility. As voice search and voice applications gain popularity, creating an ideal voice experience is coming into focus for designers and developers.

Technically speaking

Next-gen headsets are being equipped with tech for background noise canceling and voice recognition. Miniature microphones and IoT sensors are bringing voice UX to more applications. The battle for voice-based personal assistants – Siri, Alexa, Cortana and the rest – is spurring a new industry in innovative voice tech.

One example is the creation of voice UX chips that are OS independent and work with all the leading speech recognition engines. These compete on features such as:

  • Voice extraction filters – These greatly improve speech recognition accuracy, even in noisy environments. Frequently sensors only collect all the sound data and then send it to the vendor’s processors in the cloud.
  • 3D audio effects – Replicating sounds within a virtual simulation of a physical space can enhance the listener’s understanding of voice and sound. This also impacts privacy because the tech can filter out background conversations that don’t involve the primary speaker/listener. 3D audio will revolutionize virtual conference calls and has some pretty cool applications for gaming and social media, too.
  • Personized parameters – Tunable applications can now instantly make adjustments to optimize audio quality based on the specifications for each speaker.

A great deal of development dollars are being poured into voice UI and these ideas represent only the beginning.

The power of conversation

Voice may be taking center stage in UI and other applications, and yet the most powerful voice-user interface is still a conversation. Picking up the phone and speaking directly one-on-one is proving over and over again to be the most effective way to communicate complex, high-context information, and to successfully collaborate.

In our digital world, having conversations with each other may be even more important than it was before, even if it’s getting harder. Voice is the ideal conversational interface—a hands-free, invisible UI that allows a great deal of high context information to flow rapidly, and for feedback and backchannel to occur instantly. Emotion and intent are readily communicated by voice, and there is even some intriguing evidence that people are better able to interpret emotions by focusing on voice, and ignoring face expressions. It may be easier to mask your feelings using your face, and harder to conceal them with your voice. This research may also have implications for the development of sentiment analysis AI.

Other research on a neurological ground has found that the rhythms of brainwaves between two people in a conversation sync up with each other. This interbrain synchrony, which they called “entrainment,” appears to play a central role in facilitating successful voice communication.

Brains sync up in conversation
geralt / Pixabay

The experiment involved strangers on either side of an opaque barrier, to verify that the effect was a result of voice alone.

No one knows exactly how or why voice conversations create such a dynamic and networked connection, but the spoken word is linked back to all the major events in human development, like the creation of tools, culture, and complex social organization.

A conversation is the ultimate social platform for exchanging ideas, challenging our conceptions, and building the kind of consensus that drives projects and innovation forward.

While chat, text and other forms of communication, including social media, can be incredibly useful, efficient, and even fun, they don’t replace the spoken word and aren’t an adequate substitute for conversation.

Spoken language is uniquely human and essential to our economic, social and political lives. Collaboration, mentorship, and leadership all depend on voice to inspire, motivate and provide context. Effective leaders can differentiate themselves by using their voices effectively and powerfully. Salespeople build lasting relationships on the power of voice. Customer success depends on voice communication to provide the kind of education and support that drives successful adoption.

Conversations are challenging, but rewarding, and can help us critique our ideas, innovate and learn more about each other.

But while conversations are incredibly useful, the cultural significance of a telephone call has changed. Gone are the days that you could pick up the phone and just smile and dial.

A phone call must be strategic, intentional, and consensual.

Speaking on the phone has become an incredibly intimate and privileged space, and old best practices no longer apply.

Gaining permission is key to a successful phone call. Messaging and social media can be a bridge to voice communication, and create the social and cultural context necessary for a productive voice conversation.

A phone call that is intrusive, unexpected or unwanted will never be productive. Millennials instinctively understand this new reality.

However, young people who grew up without a family telephone may have to be trained on how, when and why to make a phone call, and learn the social skills of verbal communication—not that different in content from the chatter on social sites and messaging. Phone anxiety, like anxiety around public speaking, is a real thing that can and must be overcome.

Reinventing voice

The next generation of voice UX will not only facilitate crisper and cleaner sound quality but will also integrate with all major operating systems and speech recognition engines. Technology will reinvent voice as an accessible and searchable database. Speakers will be able to save and share the insights they glean from conversations and to easily transition from verbal to textual formats.

As voice becomes more amenable to digital formats, people will adopt it—again. The simplicity and accessibility of voice, the cognitive easing it facilitates, together with better tech, is driving the development of a better voice experience.

Talking on the phone will be a thing again, but it will be integrated into richer and more intutive user experience.

Telephonophobia may never go away, but it definitely has a cure.