Since the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis hit, I’ve been surprised at how many phone and video calls I've made and received. In the last week I’ve had scheduled FaceTime dates, video conferences and received spontaneous communications that go on for an hour or more, something I haven't done since I was a teenager.
I’m not alone. With hundreds of millions of people under lockdown around the world, telecommunication is going up. People I’ve spoken to have been connecting in new social ways, hosting virtual bachelorette parties, happy hours and reunions with friends who haven’t connected in decades. People have been hanging out on FaceTime while working on separate projects (almost as if they were in a coffee shop), or even gathering callers to pray together in a nightly video Novena.
But what’s driving this upsurge in calls and what’s the impact, particularly on those who aren’t comfortable chatting on the phone or over video? If you’re not a ‘phone person’, how should you handle the current rush to connect?
Saved by the screen
Under normal circumstances, we tend to turn to friends and family when there’s a sense of urgency or crisis, says Ami Rokach, a psychologist and expert in loneliness based outside Toronto. And since many of us are cut off from normal social interaction, we are opting for voice and video calls as the next best thing.
Since we are having more meaningful, deeper conversations, we feel more connected to the person we are speaking to – Ami Rokach
The pandemic, he says, means that we all have something in common to talk about, which is leading to reconnections. “Even if you neglected to keep in touch with someone over the years, it’s almost certain that people will speak with you now if you pick up the phone and call. And since we are having more meaningful, deeper conversations, we feel more connected to the person we are speaking to.”
Yet while some people will be drawing comfort from the upsurge in calls, it could be troubling to others. Like other chronic texters, I've definitely felt anxiety about having to transition to speaking on the phone. I force myself to make calls for work but avoid them if I otherwise can. Now I find myself having several social calls a week, sometimes many in the same day.
“Phone anxiety is an offshoot of social anxiety disorder, which is one of the most common anxiety disorders,” says Jean Kim, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University who has written about phone phobia. “It’s characterised by people feeling fear in social situations; they have a flood of automatic negative thoughts and are self-critical.” Some people get thrown by different social cues on the phone, she says, while for others being out of practice because of the ease of text and email can also lead to anxiety when using a less familiar form of communication.
Tara Nurin, a freelance journalist based in New Jersey, grew up chatting on the phone but then developed anxiety about calls as email and texting took over. “It grew out of the fact that I got scared of small talk. I dread conversations that are like: ‘So, how have you been?’ It grew and eventually stretched into a loathing of the phone.” Her reluctance to return calls annoys family and friends, she says, and she’s taken aback if someone calls out of the blue.
Now, however, she’s embracing video chatting, partly because it recreates an in-person experience and feels more like designated social time. “It’s a time where my friends and I are putting aside everything else and choosing to socially communicate with each other … Now that we can’t go anywhere, I’m super comfortable with it.” Could this help her with her relationship with phone calls in the future? It’s a definite possibility, she says.
That we’re getting a lot more practise than usual could also help those who have previously shied away from phone or video chats
Kim says we might be experiencing a kind of inadvertent exposure therapy. “As people reality-test what they feared, they might find their friends like talking to them or nothing is different when they speak to their co-workers from home, and it can be therapeutic.”
That we’re getting a lot more practise than usual could also help those who have previously shied away from phone or video chats. Mikaela Levy, a doula who’s currently at home with her three kids and husband, says her 13-year-old son didn’t like talking to his grandparents on the phone because he didn’t know what to talk about. Now that he’s doing distance learning and video chatting with his friends, he’s become more comfortable with family catch ups.
Not everyone wants to pick up
But there are those who are starting to resent all the calls – or at least wish the new style of communication came with defined parameters.
Teresa Lynn Hasan-Kerr, an English teacher in Morocco, considers herself an introvert and hates talking on the phone or via video. She dislikes the awkward small talk, the drawn-out goodbyes, the pauses online when the wi-fi lags. Now that remote work is forcing her to take calls at home, she feels it’s intruding on her private life.
“There is a professional Teresa, and then the one who’s talking to her boyfriend and the one who talks to her best friend. I could be talking to my friend and then my boss calls with questions that need immediate answers, and it doesn’t quite allow for a mental transitioning.”
Video doesn’t make it any better. “I’m usually doing something silly like playing with my cat while I’m talking, and I don’t want to be observed.” And there’s added pressure created by the fact that everyone knows you’re at home, so “there’s no real excuse for not picking up”.
Although they may appreciate that friends want to check in, some are also struggling to balance the sheer number of calls coming their way. Denise Naughton, a producer and video consultant, says she’s experienced a drastic increase in phone and video communication, both for work and from friends and family. “My friends have respected the boundary, but now I'm finding the additional calls and video chats after work are wearing me down,” she says.
She’s decided to stick to business hours, and leave personal calls for the evening. “I still need to find the boundaries on the personal side so I can find my own time to refuel, which I do through time alone.”
Learning to adapt
Psychiatry professor Kim suggests one strategy for people having difficulty with many calls is to carve out specific times for activities such as phone and video chats. She also says that briefly discussing with family and friends when you will be able to talk in the future can prevent people from feeling neglected or irritated.
The key is to be focused and organised as much as you can, and know and communicate your limits – Jean Kim
“It's OK just not to pick up the phone sometimes if you feel like you are too busy,” she says. “Time management is a tricky skill for many people. The key is to be focused and organised as much as you can, and know and communicate your limits.”
Even Hasan-Kerr says her relationship with calls might get better as she gets into a rhythm and etiquette is established around calls. “People might learn [that] for some people they need to send a text warning first.”
Rokach, meanwhile, hopes that once the situation returns to normal we’ll remember how we prioritised connecting with each other.
“Before corona[virus], we may have taken our social interactions for granted and been the kind of person who said: ‘I’m terrible at keeping in touch’. Suddenly, people are becoming aware of how important it is to stay in contact with their fellow humans. Whether it’s by phone or in person, I hope this will stick with us when we come out of the pandemic.”