Why I Hate Talking On The Phone
Lots of autistic people find it uncomfortable to use the phone, and the solution is more complex than just practicing. So I thought it might be useful to explain some of these other reasons why I find the phone so difficult and even painful to use.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that hearing my phone ring fills me with an overwhelming cocktail of dread, fear and panic.
Calling someone is a million times worse, in fact most of the time I physically can’t do it. It’s as if the phone is encased inside a solid brick wall, and there are very few situations in which I’m able to break through. I’m not even entirely certain that I could do it in an emergency. I know I would definitely rather go hungry than phone for a pizza.
The reasons for this reaction are complex. Lots of autistic people find using the phone unpleasant, but most of the solutions I’ve read focus on the social complexities and anxiety of initiating conversations with people you don’t know. And while there’s certainly an element of that in my discomfort, I don’t think it’s the whole story. At least for me it’s just not that simple – I hate using the phone with everyone, including people that I know really well.
From chatting with other autistic people it seems that I’m not alone in that. There’s obviously a lot more going on than just ‘social difficulties’, and the solution is more complex than just making people practice. So I thought it might be useful to explain some of these other reasons why I find the phone so difficult and even painful to use.
There’s too much attention
Without the discomfort of eye contact, you might expect that speaking over the phone would feel much more relaxing than doing so in person right? But it feels just as overwhelming for me, and leaves me feeling perhaps even more vulnerable.
And that’s because on the phone I feel trapped – someone wants something from me and there is nowhere to hide. Their full attention is directed my way, as if there’s a big fat spotlight shining directly at my head. This focus can be extremely exhausting, and I can only keep it up for short periods at a time.
It’s sudden, unexpected and unpredictable
A ringing phone feels like an invasion, as if someone has just stepped into my house without warning. I don’t know who it is or what they want from me, and at that moment the not knowing is unbearable. Thinking that my phone could suddenly start ringing at any moment is stressful for me, like a random social connection without any preamble or context.
When I’m making a call and waiting for someone to answer, listening to the ringing phone is like turning the handle and waiting for the jack-in-the-box to burst out. Not knowing whether or when someone will pick up is just really nerve-wracking… and there are only two options, each as awful as the other: someone will pick up or it will go to voicemail.
Voicemail is the worst. Talking to nobody feels so uncomfortable that I can almost never bring myself to do it, but I know that if I don’t leave a message I’ll have to go through it all again… argh! The pressure to decide before the beep freaks me out, and I almost always hang up.
It requires language processing without visuals
Visual input helps me to process auditory input. When someone’s talking to me in person, I read their lips to get the added context and anchor the sounds so that I can interpret them. Without that visual I get lost in the rhythm and cadence of the isolated voice. The tones are translated in my mind not as words, but as waves of colour that rise and fall and loop and bend… so focusing on spoken words without a corresponding visual is very, very hard work for me.
It relies on verbal communication
Words are the focus of a phone conversation. They come with so much pressure to respond, and it’s always verbal. When you’re face-to-face you can at least nod or smile to show that you’re paying attention, or use other non-verbal stuff to cover the gaps when your auditory processing is lagging or you’re finding it hard to access language. On the phone any silence is incredibly noticeable and really, really uncomfortable.
And I can’t wave my hands around for emphasis like I usually do, so I have to use exaggerated tone and inflection to make the same point. There’s also the need to speak clearly, and both of these things require a great deal of effort.
I’m also a chronic interrupter. I’ve worked really hard over the years to try and stop myself from talking all over other people, with only limited success. I’m constantly misjudging when it’s my turn to speak, and on the phone it’s even harder for me to figure that out. Reading emotions is also a thousand times harder over the phone, when most of the evidence and context are obscured. So it feels like there are just a lot more opportunities for misunderstandings.
It feels unnatural
Without the visual presence of the person I’m talking to the phone can often feel like talking to a machine or out loud to myself, which is just… weird. So the whole thing has a quality of play acting about it that feels super uncomfortable to me.
Last but certainly not least, it physically hurts to hold the phone next to my ear. Keeping my hands still when I talk is a challenge, and the sensory onslaught of the sound directed right into my ear canal at varying volumes and inconsistent rate can be overwhelming after only a few minutes.
All of these reasons just seem to add up to an overall feeling of my body screaming at me that something isn’t right, which makes it hard to break through that invisible wall that seems to encase my phone.
Things that help
There are a few situations in which I can use the phone with a lot less stress. One of them is calling to make an appointment of some kind, probably because I know in advance exactly how it’s going to go and what’s expected of me. There’s a script I can follow and things happen in a predictable way, and that takes the pressure off.
It’s the same with any call that’s a simple exchange of information – can you tell me what time you close, do you sell Apple products, here’s my credit card number – that kind of thing.
Obviously I vastly prefer to communicate via texts or email, so I use these wherever possible. If I can’t do that, then it helps if people text me to let me know that they’re about to call. It also helps me to let calls go through to voicemail. That way I know who it is and what they want before we start talking, and I have time to get my thoughts together. There’s also a chance I might not have to call them back or can reply via text or email.
None of these things make using the phone easier, they just make it slightly less sucky. For the most part I will do whatever I can to avoid making a call – that means if you don’t text me or have an email address then I’m probably not going to contact you, at least not until I absolutely have to!
So that’s the story with me and the phone. I leave you now with the profound albeit paraphrased words of Carly Rae Jepsen.
Hey, I just met you
and this is crazy,
but here’s my number
and I would really appreciate it if you never used it.
Unless you’re texting.
Just don’t call me.
2 April, 2014 by Bec Oakley