‘I would never call someone without messaging first’: Why younger people don’t make phone calls

A fear of telephone calls may seem an unlikely condition - at least to people in their 40s and older. For millennials and Gen Z-ers, it’s all too common

May Kelly vividly remembers the day she and her students got locked into their classroom during a fire alarm.

Kelly, an engineering teacher from Limerick, had put off ringing the maintenance team about a broken latch in the classroom door, until one day, a student slammed the door, locking the entire class in.

Everyone was fine – it was only a drill, and the teacher across the hall rescued them – but Kelly points to this as an example of the lengths she will go to in order to avoid lifting the phone.

“We were stuck because I didn’t make that phone call. It would have literally taken me one minute to make the phone call, but I was afraid someone I didn’t know would pick up the phone. And because of that, I ended up locked into a computer room during a fire alarm.”


Kelly, 23, is just one of a growing number of people within the millennial and Gen Z demographic who actively avoid phone calls. A 2023 Sky Mobile survey found that more than a quarter (26 per cent) of young people within the Gen Z cohort say they actively ignore phone calls, while 20 per cent find it “weird” to receive calls at all. Millennials appear to be similarly call-shy, with a study by Open Market finding that 75 per cent of millennials prefer to text rather than lift the phone.

Paula Higgins, director of training at Professional Development, a company that facilitates training courses in corporate skills, says phone call anxiety is something companies have been identifying as an issue. “People are reluctant to pick up the phone and put themselves out there in that way.”

It’s ironic: we’re spending more and more time on our phones, but we’re using them less and less for calls.

Duncan Brumby is a Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at University College London who has undertaken research into the impact of phone call notifications on smartphone users. “It’s funny,” he points out, “that we still call this thing a phone when it’s really not. It’s a small computer.” People may be “using their phone all day long”, but, he says, “a very small fraction of the time would be in calls”.

Anxiety about the making and taking of phone calls is not a new phenomenon – the British poet Robert Graves wrote about his fear of using the phone in 1929. But for decades, phone phobia was something that people simply had to get over – using the phone, in one’s professional and private life, was unavoidable.

With the advent of technology, everything has changed. Now, there are multiple ways to duck telephone calls, whether it’s by sending an email, a text or a direct message on social media. Perhaps as a consequence, not only has phone phobia become more common, it has also become more culturally visible. There is a “Telephobia” subreddit. There are thousands of videos about the topic on TikTok, with hashtags including #phoneanxiety, #howphoneanxietyfeels and #phoneanxietyismybitch.

While more and more of us may be opting out of taking calls, we seemingly prefer to do so passively, rather than outright rejecting them and hitting the disconnect button.

Dave Ryan, a 26-year-old PhD researcher from Cork, says while he hates phone calls, he would never actively decline a call if someone was ringing him.

“I’d be debating picking it up. If it’s someone I’m really, really close to, I might answer, but more often than not, I’ll just let it ring out.” Ryan’s experience is borne out by Prof Brumby’s research, which found that “when people received a call, very rarely – less than 10 per cent of the time – they would hit the decline button. Instead, what they do is just let it ring through.”

An unwillingness to reject calls outright is just one example of the new phone-call etiquette among millennials and Gen Zs. For many in this cohort, ringing someone out of the blue is a complete no-no, as phone calls should always be pre-empted by a text.

When you’re having a FaceTime conversation, you can tell whether it’s going well or not, whereas on the phone you can’t see their face

—  May Kelly, engineering teacher

Ringing a person randomly, Ryan explains, “is an intrusion”, while May Kelly says, “I would never call someone without messaging first to see if they were ready for a call.” Getting an unscheduled phone call is, she says, “bizarre”. “I get such a shock when someone rings me out of the blue. As in, someone who’s my age.” Instead, calls are prearranged, “so you’re not stressing when someone’s name pops up on your phone”.

Among this cohort, an unexpected phone call is often assumed to signal an emergency. “Normally, when you get a phone call, it’s something kind of formal,” Ryan says. “There could be something wrong, or someone needs to reach you urgently. Bad news or something like that. So, I guess from that, there’s probably a negative association just by default.”

Both Ryan and Kelly see an antipathy towards phone calls as generational. “Younger people generally have more of an aversion to phone calls, as far as I can see,” says Ryan.

Michael Ledden is a psychotherapist and founder of Anxiety Ireland. Phone call anxiety has been named by clients as a problem in Ledden’s practice, but, he says, it is usually indicative of a broader set of circumstances casting shadows in someone’s life. “It might be there as a telltale sign about other parts of their life where there may be anxiety, or where they want to keep control, or where they have negative thinking. It can be a piece of the puzzle.”

Outside of a clinical context, where underlying issues might be at play, why do millennials and Gen Z despise phone calls so much?

Ryan explains it’s the “surprise element” that he dislikes the most. “I can tolerate a phone call if it’s pre-planned. But I really don’t like getting a surprise phone call, or not expecting it.” He says that for him, “It probably comes down to some degree of lack of control.” Unlike texting, which allows time for thinking and formulating a response, calls involve the “surprise element of having to respond on the spot and having to think quickly”.

Another reason for the decline of the old-fashioned phone call may lie in the fact that there are now lots of alternative ways for people to stay in touch. Kelly vehemently dislikes phone calls, but will happily FaceTime family and friends. “When you’re having a conversation, you can tell whether it’s going well or not,” she says, “whereas on the phone you can’t see their face.”

While acknowledging that he’s “not a huge texter” and prefers face-to-face meet-ups where possible, Ryan says digital communication with his friends tends to be through WhatsApp or Snapchat, or in the case of close friends he’s known a long time, through sending one another memes.

Ledden points out that just because phone calls are in decline, it doesn’t mean that communication is: people “might just want to communicate in a different way”. He cites WhatsApp groups and online gaming communities as examples of new ways that people can interact. “Some people say they’re actually more interconnected. Because it’s not just five people’s numbers you have written by the phone in the hall. It’s friends you’ve met travelling, friends from school... all these different people, their numbers or their socials are in your phone. And some say your connection network can actually grow because of that.”

Phone calls may also be less of a fixture in our lives thanks to the emergence of new ways of ordering goods and services, such as Deliveroo, Uber and Just Eat. Kelly says that, where possible, she will always opt to use an app rather than make a call. “I would always use Uber if I want to book a taxi or order a takeaway. I can just apply online for everything.” She is even willing to incur a financial penalty: “Even if it’s more expensive to be booking on Uber or something, whereas it could be cheaper if I’d called them, I’d still sacrifice the money just to not have to do the phone call.” While this has allowed her to make fewer calls, she admits that this may not be helping her aversion to them. “I suppose it makes sense why I don’t like doing it, and why I have such a fear, because I don’t do it often.”

I might just get a bit of extra anxiety before getting a call for work or something like that. But generally, I’ve learned how to cope

—  Dave Ryan, PhD researcher

Kelly also wonders whether TikTok might have a role to play in the decreasing popularity of the phone call among her fellow Gen Zs. “I feel like it’s become such a thing from TikTok and people posting about it and trying to make it relatable, so then people build it up to be more than it is.” This almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: “It makes for relatable content. But then you’re seeing it, and it can subconsciously become part of your personality.” Kelly may have a point: after all, this is a demographic for whom everything is content, and authenticity and being #relatable are highly prized.

Then there’s the rise and rise of the scam call, which has made people of all ages understandably wary of calls from unknown numbers. Who would want to answer the phone if the person on the other end is just there to try to steal your money?

The reasons for its decline notwithstanding, does it matter that the phone call is falling out of favour? Does phone call avoidance significantly impact our lives? Ryan says he has learned to live with his fears. “It doesn’t impact my personal relationships all that much. I might just get a bit of extra anxiety before getting a call for work or something like that. But generally, I’ve learned how to cope.”

Higgins, whose company offers a specialised course in phone skills, points out that phone calls still have value in a professional context. They are essential for some jobs, such as sales or customer service. They can offer a more efficient way to communicate, and be a good way to ensure the person you’re contacting has actually received the information and taken it on board.

“I think there is that feeling among people that ‘I’ve sent an email, job done.’ It’s not job done at all.” If something is important and urgent, Higgins says that “picking up the phone has to be the first port of call, and then confirming what you’ve said by email.”

Despite the increasing dominance of web-based businesses, when it comes to many services, it still pays to pick up the phone. Both Ryan and Kelly say they have ended up paying higher rates on electricity because of an unwillingness to ring their electricity companies. Tackling phone avoidance head-on can also help with personal growth and development, as psychotherapist Michael Ledden explains. Facing your phone fears, he says, may “save you time, build your confidence, or just help you get to the bottom of things faster.”

But when it comes to the ways humans, and human interactions, may be changing due to technology, Prof Brumby of UCL cautions against reading too much into the increase in phone-call avoidance. “I don’t think it’s necessarily that people are getting more shy or reserved. I think what the research shows is that people adapt to their setting.” We’re opting for communication tools such as apps, Zooms and emails because they’re “more efficient ways of doing it. I think what this kind of digital transformation has given us is better ways of doing things.

“The scale at which evolutionary change in human DNA happens is really slow. Glacial, right? But we’re smart and adaptable, and we change because we figure out better ways of doing things.” As he explains it, “It’s not something that it’s intrinsically changing in us, it’s more that we’re thinking about how to interact with the world in better ways.”

While new technologies and modes of communication may offer us different and in some cases better ways to interact with the world and each other, there is good news for anyone who is keen to tackle their phone fear and master using the telephone. Higgins says phone skills “can be learned by everybody”.

She advises that “preparing is the first thing that I would say to people, to build that confidence”. Anticipating difficult questions or tricky situations in advance can also really help. You can work on your tone by smiling while speaking, as “that comes across as more pleasing and friendly than if you’re not smiling”. Body language and posture can also play a role. “If you ‘re nervous, sit up straight, because you can engage your diaphragm much better and you can take deeper breaths. All of those things can help overcome nerves.”

As with anything else, practice makes perfect, as call-hating teacher Kelly can attest. Since being forced to make more calls as part of her job over the past year, she feels she’s got better at it now, to the point that she can “get by” when it comes to making and taking calls. Ultimately, as with lots of other anxieties, “It’s never as bad when you’re actually doing it. In the end, it’s fine.”