How one millennial with phone anxiety quit texting and started calling to stay connected

Asian man having a video call via smart phone while holding his baby on his lap. Father working from home.
Hearing a friend or family member's voice during phone conversation builds social connection more effectively than sending a text, according to research. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Erin Hahn of CNN

Some of my earliest memories from growing up in the late 1980s were of my mum spending hours on the phone with my grandmother, my aunt and her best friends.

There was a daily circuit of female communication that kicked off sometime right after breakfast. Between the daily advice doled out by television hosts Oprah and Phil Donahue, there were regular check-ins, gossip fests and venting sessions.

I definitely didn't follow in her (dialling) footsteps. As a proud elder millennial, I fully embraced text culture in my early 20s.

Unless there was a life-threatening emergency or someone had died, a casual text was enough. It felt considerate. Familiar. Direct. For decades, I did my best communicating via a keyboard.

Then the pandemic took over, and my world closed in. As many Americans stayed home in 2020, my circle became impossibly small. Even as a card-carrying introvert, I realised I missed the sound of someone's voice - and one voice in particular - my mum's.

That's when I picked up the phone. And what I found was a wealth of simple comfort that had always been waiting on the other end of the proverbial phone line. Week after week during the height of the pandemic, hearing my mum's voice made me feel less lonely.

How often, when feeling poorly, even as adults, do we wish for mum to take care of us? The pandemic made physical contact nearly impossible, but I still felt cared for through our conversations.

The power of my mum's comforting voice is backed up by research. A 2021 study found that "although e-mail and other text-based media can be excellent for scheduling meetings and sending spreadsheets, connecting with others is better done using one's voice."

Finding a sense of shared well-being through conversations that forge strong bonds can be especially true for women. "When women feel socially connected and supported, they are not only better equipped to cope with challenges, pursue their goals, and enjoy a higher quality of life, but also to improve the lives of everyone they are connected with," said Kristjan Archer, a senior communications consultant at Gallup, in a March 8 blog post.

Most US women - 72 percent, in fact - often find some of that connection speaking on the phone, according to the accompanying Gallup poll.

I discovered many benefits of voice-to-voice contact, especially when it came to connecting with my parents and older relatives, most of whom were born in the 1960s or earlier.

Those of us born in the 1980s and later are fluent in communicating our emotions via text characters, but that's not always true of our elders.

The pandemic made me see the value of my mum and dad's way of doing things. Tone and intent come across so much more clearly when we're talking on the phone. I needed to know - especially then - how my parents were doing. And even now, I want to hear it in their voices.

Tone is especially lost in texting. How often are relationships severed or at least damaged over a text miscommunication? Someone is trying to be funny or sarcastic, and the little emoji they've snuck in at the end of their text doesn't convey their emotion properly, and suddenly Aunt Margaret's side of the family has decided to skip your Thanksgiving celebration this year.

There is also the benefit of a wandering conversation. During lockdown in particular, we had nothing but time. If you have the luxury of time, letting a conversation meander can be a beautiful thing. I learned so much about my parents, our family history, silly stories from my childhood and things that surprised me during our phone chats.

During one summer phone call, my dad, a Vietnam veteran who has never wanted to discuss his experience there, found out from my mum that I'd been binge-watching Ken Burns' docuseries The Vietnam War, and jumped on the phone to discuss it with me. For the first time in my memory, my dad shared anecdotes from his time in the US Navy aboard the aircraft carrier where he spent the war.

I started saving up stories to share on our weekly calls and making notes of questions to ask later. And I started to schedule more phone calls with my siblings and close friends who live in different states, sometimes video chatting so I could see the speaker's face.

I've even started speaking with my author friends, a group of people who have long preferred email and text. I realised just how good it felt to hear their voices and to really know if they were emotional or happy or uncomfortable or even lonely.

Walking while talking

I also found I could easily fit in phone calls during my weekly routine. I started putting in my earbuds and calling my mum while we were both on walks. I'd call my sister when I was in my car on my way somewhere. I called my best friend while cleaning the house and my writing critique partner while painting my nails. (I couldn't type and walk or drive or dust, so this new development was a win.)

I may be making the switch sound as if it was an easy transition, but I had phone anxiety and it took practice. I loved making appointments and reservations online because I didn't have to talk to anyone. And when my phone rang, no matter who it was, spam or relative, I would freeze up.

But when I started practising, I got better at it. Here's how I did it.

How to practise phone calls

Start with strangers. Scheduling doctor's appointments, calling your kid's school and ordering takeout are all instances where the other person is supposed to be patient and professional with you. You aren't an inconvenience calling the restaurant down the street because you are contributing to its business. Take a deep breath, make sure you have a notepad and pen within reach, and make the call.

Write it down. Here's a tip straight from my 12-year-old, who tends to feel nervous ordering aloud at restaurants: She writes her order down, verbatim, to read aloud when the server asks. If you have to make an appointment, write down what you need, when you're available and so forth. In fact, I used to write down my character's names when I would take calls about my books because when I'm nervous I forget everything I've ever known.

Schedule your calls in advance. Sometimes I make a standing phone call, like with my mum. Sometimes the minute I get off the phone, I email or text the person and say, "When should we talk next week/month/whatever?" It eases my mind to know the person I am calling expects me and has dedicated time to speak with me, and that can go both ways.

Be honest. I was honest with myself and the people I was talking to. I explained that I'm rusty on phone calls but wanted to make a concerted effort to be more present and keep in touch. I found if I was willing to make the effort, they were often willing to do the same. That's the thing about talking on the phone. They can hear how much I meant it.

Erin Hahn is the author of the young adult novels You'd Be Mine, More Than Maybe and Never Saw You Coming as well as the adult romance Built to Last and the forthcoming Friends Don't Fall in Love.