Why are millennials so scared of talking on the phone?

OPINION:  It's funny, I always thought I'd grow out of my hatred of talking on the phone.

I thought it was one of those other insecure teenage behaviours, like wearing a full face of makeup to leave the house, that would just disappear as I became an adult. But while I'm now a functioning adult who's happy to hit Countdown wearing no makeup (and a unicorn onesie), I still struggle with taking and making calls.

On the surface, it's baffling why I have this incredibly specific, first-world phobia. I don't have any deep-seated psychological fear of conversation via phone. I wasn't beaten, electrocuted or trapped with a cellphone in a jail cell for all of 2002 listening to the Crazy Frog ringtone. And yet I'm a grown woman who pays bills/waters plants/drinks almond milk … but puts off for two days calling her mum back.

I know it's not just me. It's common among millennials, especially us early-20s to early-30s women, to hate talking on the phone.

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So in a week when the internet is abuzz with discussions of millennial incompetence, after that Buzzfeed essay linking incompetence to burnout went viral, I want to explain the psychology behind our reluctance to pick up.

On the surface it just sounds like another example of useless millennials who're unable to perform basic adulting, right? Older generations look at people like me and our phone phobia as a sign that the world is going to hell in a hipster, hand-woven basket. Or maybe it doesn't look so different to normal because there have always been deep introverts/misanthropes/people who simply hate communicating with other humans who don't like communication …

Millennials are happy to multitask when it comes to functional, emotionless phone calls, but not when it involves those they care about most.
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Millennials are happy to multitask when it comes to functional, emotionless phone calls, but not when it involves those they care about most.

But this phobia affects a lot of millennials, not just introverts and misanthropes, and it's not a generational incompetence that we just can't pick up a phone at all ever.

Introvert or not, we can blitz out calls to IRD, ASB, UPS, ASOS ... you name it, if it's a functional, emotionless phone call then we're speed-dial machines.

What we really struggle to do is pick up/call back people when we know it's going to be a non-"functional" conversation, aka anything that involves emotion. Even if it's people we know, and we love talking to our bestie or our mum. The stereotype of young women spending every night on the phone to their friend dissecting whether the gold dress is Cardi B fabulous or Eurotrash stripper just doesn't happen any more. That depth of connection is gone, split into disjointed Facebook messages, ASOS links and odd voice memos replied to spasmodically between work.

And if your mum calls, it might be two days before you call her back ... not because you don't love her, but because you haven't put it in your to-do list for today and don't have any emotional energy left over to have the conversation you know she wants.

We'll answer work emails from our beds, our bathrooms or our barre classes, writes Verity Johnson. But "you simply don't prioritise non-functional things that improve your life in subtle, overlooked ways like calling your mum".
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We'll answer work emails from our beds, our bathrooms or our barre classes, writes Verity Johnson. But "you simply don't prioritise non-functional things that improve your life in subtle, overlooked ways like calling your mum".

It's the same with our inboxes. While phone calls suffer most because they're by nature the most emotionally intense, the emails that sit festering for weeks before I reply are the ones from people I care most about. Primarily because I love talking to them, and that requires the kind of mental focus I'm normally too exhausted for after a daily deluge of demands on my attention.

Partly this is because we all now have 20,000 constant calls for an immediate response/opinion/credit card details. But, as the internet has been debating this week, it's made worse for millennials because we're the "burnout generation". The era characterised by the exhaustion of constant optimisation.

Millennials have been raised to work not only all of the time in their professional lives, but also in every aspect of their lives. We need a "cool job" we're passionate about and for which we'll answer emails from our beds, our bathrooms or our barre classes. But we also need a successful side hustle, daily fitness routine, homemade paleo meals, healthy friendships and meaningful relationships. And we have to put this all on Instagram to prove to everyone that we are optimising all aspects of existence. And we have to maintain "brand me" because social media has turned our free time into a digital CV.

Verity Johnson: "If your mum calls, it might be two days before you call her back ... not because you don't love her, but because you haven't put it in your to-do list for today and don't have any emotional energy left over to have the conversation you know she wants."
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Verity Johnson: "If your mum calls, it might be two days before you call her back ... not because you don't love her, but because you haven't put it in your to-do list for today and don't have any emotional energy left over to have the conversation you know she wants."

It's the era of efficiency. And when you're working all the time, you simply don't prioritise non-functional things that improve your life in subtle, overlooked ways like calling your mum.

And crucially, optimisation exhaustion leaves you, well, exhausted. Stretched thin mentally, you look down at the incoming call and are overwhelmed at the thought of making upbeat, interesting and stimulating conversation for 20 minutes. You love this person – you don't want to deliver them a sub-optimal brand-Verity experience of bad conversation.

It's ironic, right? We're so busy being burned out with efficiency that we isolate ourselves from the very things that make us feel alive again. But hey, there might be a face mask to fix that ...

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