Hung up over phone calls

I have a ritual where I have to call somebody on the telephone out of the blue. I write out the script for my opening sentences, word for word, and put it in front of me. Then I pick up the receiver and empty my mind of all thought.

Once in that blank space, I swiftly dial the number before my brain realises what I am doing. By that point, the phone has started ringing, so it is too late to back out.

The truth is that I am terrified of phone calls.

It is the idea of the limbo that unnerves me, that "nothing-space" into which your hopes of being heard unspool, each second wrung dry by the thin blare of the dialling tone, creeping unwanted into the path of this unsuspecting person's day to trip them up with that most invidious incursion - that hotline bling.

I am guilty of preferring to text rather than talk. So, it seems, are many in my generation who have thrown over verbal communication for thumbs on keypads, thanks to the ease of social messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

Millennials are famous for using the phone for everything under the sun - adding food snapshots to our Instagram stories, shooting off tweets, lurking in comment threads - you name it.

But ask us to make or take an unplanned phone call and we shudder. "If urgent, please text," we write in our WhatsApp status.

The heightened degree of connectivity that comes with owning a smartphone is an intense sort of exposure that can feel at times like a raw nerve. Little wonder that we try to put filters between each other, as if we were photos we could edit on Instagram.

Recent surveys abroad show that phone calls are becoming less popular on the very devices that were invented to carry them out.

According to a survey by Deloitte in Britain last year, 31 per cent of smartphone users made no traditional voice calls in a given week.

In the United States, smartphone users sent and received five times as many texts compared with the number of phone calls they made each day, according to a 2015 International Smartphone Mobility Report by mobile data-tracking firm Infomate.

My own phone phobia began to manifest when I first got a smartphone. It was the worst time for it to do so: I had just got a job as a reporter, where I was constantly told to do things like "call 10 experts before lunch to see how they feel about the labour market" or "call 20 stores to check if the price of eggs is going up".

I began to dread those dial-driven days. I imagined the phone as a "muck funnel", as poet Sylvia Plath calls it: "What are these words, these words?/ They are plopping like mud/ O god, how shall I ever clean the phone table?"

Plath is particularly overwrought here, I should note, because the phone calls prove her husband is cheating on her. In comparison, phone phobia is picayune as problems go. Still, I was unable to shake off the image of words like mud, oozing out of the receiver and plopping onto other people as they tried to go about their lives.

To circumvent this, I would send messages in advance asking if it was okay to call. Failing this, I invented the aforementioned ritual, a cross between meditation and misdirection. In this fashion, I fulfilled the telephonic demands of my job, although it left me worn out at the end of the day. Having to constantly trick your brain is exhausting.

This fear is irrational, I tell myself. What is the worst possible thing that could happen? Getting voicemail? Getting hung up on? Getting shouted at and then hung up on?

Even when these things did happen, somehow they were never worse than the interminable wait with the phone to my ear, dialling tone, insolent "brrr brrr", please hold.

Perhaps it is because I have become too polite. I have developed a horror of imposing on others. Heaven forbid I inflict interaction upon others when I have no idea what they are in the middle of. They could be driving, or sleeping, or having a social life instead of being on their phones 24/7.

Phone phobia is not new. The German writer Franz Kafka, according to his biographer Reiner Stach, was so afraid of the phone that in a 1913 letter he wished someone would invent a "cross between a telephone and a parlograph (a dictation machine)" - in other words, an answering machine - which would save him the trouble of actual conversations.

But never before have alternatives to the phone call been so prolific. One can now check e-mails on the go, or record snippets of audio on WhatsApp.

Why call when you can simply drop someone a well-crafted text and wait for the ticks next to it to turn blue, to indicate he or she has seen it and will respond when convenient? (Blue-ticking: another source of millennial anxiety, but that is a story for another day.)

We live in an age when we are constantly documenting ourselves. Using messages to communicate leaves a trail of evidence that you can refer back to - "getting receipts", as pop star Taylor Swift would say. Calls are of a more transient nature - unless you, like Swift's nemesis, reality TV star Kim Kardashian, make it a habit to record them.

The heightened degree of connectivity that comes with owning a smartphone is an intense sort of exposure that can feel at times like a raw nerve. Little wonder that we try to put filters between each other, as if we were photos we could edit on Instagram.

Outside of work, I rarely call anyone unless in emergencies, such as "which exit of the MRT did you say you were at?" or "help, it is 2am and I have locked myself out".

Accordingly, the sound of my phone vibrating sends an ominous frisson down my spine, as I have come to associate phone calls with something going wrong (or people trying to sell me insurance).

It is hard to recall now, but phone calls did not always use to be a source of terror for me. As a teenager with no mobile phone, my heart would surge with joy whenever my grandmother yelled from the living room in Mandarin: "Bia, your friend is calling!"

These were the days of dial-up Internet, so we had to restrict our calls in case our parents needed to go online. In those snatched minutes of talk time, the space on the line was no awful limbo but packed with the myriad glories and grievances of teenage life.

Sometimes, we did not even have to say anything but sat there in silence, listening to each other breathe over the line. There is no equivalent for this in messaging, where people usually fill silence with strings of emoji.

Last week, I got a call from an old friend who now lives overseas. The ominous frisson made itself known at once - we usually talk on Facebook Messenger and I feared the worst.

"I'm getting married," he said, in that dear voice I had not heard in eons. "I wanted to tell you myself."

I gasped, feeling again that old surge of joy, of connection over distance, across the miles and years between us.

Some things you can do over text message. Some things you want spoken in your ear.

•#opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline 'Hung up over phone calls'. Subscribe