Tuesday 14 July 2020

My social anxiety was rekindled by lockdown. Could phoning up strangers help?

As an introvert, coronavirus had me retreating back into my shell. So I signed up to talk to strangers, from Sri Lanka to Nigeria. Here’s how it went

My phone rings unexpectedly, and I suppress a strong urge to throw it out my kitchen window.

“Hello?” I answer, tentatively. An American voice recording tells me to hold tight while it connects me with a stranger. Soothing ethereal music plays while my heart races and then – click. Someone else is on the line. But who?

“Hi…” I say.

“Hi…” a man replies.

Great. Now what?

I desperately want to hang up, but curiosity gets the better of me. I ask him where he is, and he tells me that he is calling from Sri Lanka. I am instantly interested – transported from my dull flat in London where I have been confined for three months. He tells me he can see the beach; I close my eyes and imagine palm trees and an ocean breeze.

He asks how I am, and I find myself blurting out that I am pregnant with my first child, something I have not yet told most of my friends. He tells me he has four children and that having kids is great. In fact, he and his wife plan on having eight. We discover that we got married in the same year, which he finds shocking. “Why did you wait so long to get pregnant?” he asks me, earnestly.

Dad, is that you?


I am an inveterate introvert who spent last year living as an out-and-out extrovert: I talked to strangers, survived networking events, performed standup comedy, went camping with hippies, took improv classes and generally tried to make my life as miserable as possible in the short term, in the hope of making it better in the long term. 

Then I invited the people I met along the way to my flat for a dinner party. In other words, I lived out my worst nightmares. But by embracing things I normally ran away from, I overcame my social anxiety, made new friends and now know what it feels like to bomb at the Edinburgh fringe (bad; very bad).

I wrote a book about it called Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want To Come. Those 12 months were so exhausting that I joked I would stay at home this year and write a book called Sorry I’m Early, I Just Had to Get Out.

Dumb joke.

Illustration: Leonard Beard/The Guardian

When lockdown began in March, I was five months pregnant. I started to receive messages from readers, asking me how they were meant to apply the lessons from my year of extroverting to their lives, now that they were confined to their homes.

My first reaction was, I don’t know! I am a pregnant asthmatic with a vitamin D deficiency; I am just trying to stay alive. Socialising was the last thing on my mind. But, within weeks, I found myself feeling low and lonely: every day felt the same as the last. With so little exposure to other people, the familiar social anxiety I had spent the previous year conquering was creeping back. Could lockdown have undone my year of progress?

I checked in with two people who had guided me during my year of socialising. Stefan Hofmann, the director of the psychotherapy and emotion research laboratory at Boston University, told me it was possible I had already regressed: “It’s like a muscle you have to keep exercising; if you don’t, you get out of shape.” He was right: you know you have fallen a long way when a buzz at the door from an Amazon delivery sparks anxiety.

But how on earth could I exercise this muscle while we were encouraged to back away from strangers? Could I meet new people without risking my health?

I realised the answer might lie in phone calls.

I am not a natural on this score. Seeing an unknown telephone number strikes terror into my heart. I rarely take calls from my own parents. Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science at the Chicago Booth School of Business, says that this is because I, like most people who claim to hate talking on the phone, overestimate how uncomfortable the interaction will be. His studies have repeatedly shown that voice calls are much more intimate than emails or texts, yet no more awkward. While we may think that video calls are more intimate than voice calls, Epley’s studies have not found this to be true. (Personally, I am delighted to have a great excuse to permanently turn off FaceTime.)

On the phone from his cabin in Wisconsin, Epley says: “Your voice is as close as I will ever get to your mind. Our humanity is conveyed by voice. By talking to you right now, I understand what it’s like to be you today, Jessica. I can hear you thinking when you speed up and slow down. I can hear you experiencing emotion through your voice. I can even hear you if you cry over the phone.” I swallow – before it occurs to me that Epley can hear that, too.

Strangers bring variety into our lives, I was told. I didn’t not know it would happen this quickly

An hour after we hang up, my phone rings again. I knock it off the kitchen counter in shock. Persuaded by Epley and Hofmann’s research, I have signed up for QuarantineChat, a feature of the voice-chat app Dialup, which connects strangers from all over the world for randomly allocated one-on-one phone calls at any point during the day.

And so it begins.

My first call is with the Sri Lankan father of four, and I ask him for advice on how to weather a rough pregnancy. He tells me to avoid eating mangos. I pause. I ate a mango yesterday morning and suffered the worst heartburn of my life. My vague curiosity has sharpened into something more urgent – this man seems to have insider intel. He tells me I should try eating watermelon instead. Duly noted.

Epley had told me that things like this would happen: strangers bring new information and variety into our lives. But I did not know it would happen this quickly. This is one of the major experiences we lost during lockdown: those spontaneous, serendipitous encounters that lead us away from the predictability of our day-to-day lives. Those moments when you sit by someone on an aeroplane and discover that you lived in the same bedroom in Beijing years apart; or when you bump into a person in a queue for coffee who is holding a guidebook to the holiday destination you booked the night before (true stories).

The sociologist Ray Oldenburg has written about the importance of these “third place” meetings, which happen at cafes, pubs, churches, libraries. If our “first place” is home, our “second place” the workplace, then our “third places” have been closed for months. 

Those of us who are working from home, or furloughed, have been left with only the first. QuarantineChat is a way to interact safely with strangers – to create, in essence, a virtual third place.

The founders of Dialup, Danielle Baskin, an artist and entrepreneur, and Max Hawkins, a former programmer at Google, met at a Halloween party in San Francisco in 2016 when Baskin read Hawkins’ tarot cards. They bonded over a mutual love of random coincidences before creating the app in 2019.

“I love connecting people,” Baskin says over the phone from San Francisco. “One of my favourite things is introducing people, being responsible for unexpected friendships. I feel like a wizard behind the scenes.”

At the beginning of 2020, their app had 2,000 users. It now has 20,000, from 190 countries, speaking 25 languages. If receiving an unexpected call at any time of day is too daunting for you, the app also offers various scheduled topics (including music, parenting and books). Choose one of these and you are also given a question to help prompt the conversation (Who is your favourite author and what book of theirs do you recommend? Is there a signature dish you make that people know you for?).

Even in these more structured interactions, the person you are paired with is always random, although the app filters for language preferences. This is the beauty and the terror of it: your conversational partner could be anyone from any country, any age, any profession.

“Most apps optimise the algorithm to show you content meant just for you, but we want to introduce people to things that are unexpected,” explains Baskin. “A topic you never considered discussing. A person you wouldn’t normally meet. Some of the best conversations happen when you’re not seeking out a specific kind of conversation.”

Early on, I am paired with a woman in her 40s in Galway. She is charming, eases us into a fast rapport and instantly brightens my grey morning with her warm laugh. She tells me she moved back to Galway from Dublin to take care of her elderly mother during lockdown, and that she has been using the app for about three weeks. This feels like a great first date. She tells me she has had tons of great conversations: the Italian man who gave her film recommendations, the woman in Florida whom she regularly chats to about books. She is planning to meet some of her connections in real life someday, and I vow to be worthy enough to stand out in her crowd of suitors.

I talk to a Finn who tells me about the 24 hours of sun in summer. I close my eyes and see a forest, cool lakes

Just as she is telling me about her home by the rugged beaches, where I am already dreaming about spending long weekends on bracing walks, talking about books, it happens. The line cuts out. We are disconnected, for ever.

I did not even get her first name. And I can’t call her back. The connections are serendipitous and random, yes – but occasionally, unexpectedly cruelly, they cut out due to a bug in the app. Matches are encouraged not to share personal information, though a mutual exchange of contact details is allowed.

“We’re planning on building a buddy list within the app, so you can add someone as a friend and be able to talk serendipitously another time,” Baskin says. Matches can talk on the phone as long as they like; the longest call recorded so far was six hours and seventeen minutes.


My calls keep coming. I talk to a man in Finland about sauna culture, before he opens up about how he can’t meet his real friends or travel right now. I tentatively take a leap and ask him: “What about dating?” He sighs and says that he is single, but at an age where he wants to settle down and have kids, but that is also on hold. He is speaking to me from his home in the Finnish countryside and talks about the 24 hours of sun during summer. I close my eyes once again, imagining a forest of trees, cool lakes and bright nights.

One of my favourite calls is with a twentysomething man in Nigeria. He tells me how strange it is to watch the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. “When I was a kid, my dream was to go to America,” he says. “Now, America has lost that appeal. I feel sad. 

I’m trying to understand it better.” He tells me he has been on the app for more than a year and talks to strangers every week. When I ask him why, he says he wants to inject some serendipity into his life, which has worked: he has connected with a woman in Japan, while a man in San Francisco has told him he can crash at his house when the borders reopen.

I am paired with an Indian student living in Paris, and we bond over how badly we have been treated in France, because we don’t speak French. I tell him I was once punished by an angry Parisian hairdresser who gave me the unforgiving Amélie haircut, which took two years to grow out and left lingering psychological scars. He laughs and tells me about his own terrible Paris haircut, one that forced him to buy a beanie immediately. On every call, I am reminded of what Epley told me: voice is intimate. I hear these people laughing, sighing, searching for the right words. It feels very personal, despite the distance between us.

Past midnight, up late for a work deadline, I am matched with a musician in Atlanta, Georgia. He tells me how scary it is to watch the US opening up again as coronavirus cases surge; I talk about how I fear the same thing happening in the UK. We are getting deeper when it happens again: we are disconnected. I guess this is much like real life. We have all been to a party and chatted with someone, only to turn our back for a second to find they have gone.

Baskin tells me that they are fixing this bug, as she gets several messages a day from people who have been cut off. I am not surprised; I still think about that Irish woman and what could have been. We will never meet now, but we could have, and that possibility is everything these days.

I’m no longer afraid to pick up the phone. Just as importantly, I’m also learning how to have a conversation again

After a week of calls, I am no longer frightened of picking up the phone. Just as importantly, I am also learning how to have a conversation again without panicking at an awkward silence. Baskin tells me that most conversations become rewarding for two reasons: the passage of time (conversations tend to pick up after 10 minutes) and curiosity (asking lots of questions creates interest on both ends). She has heard that two matches ended up quarantining together, and that another two discovered they were from the same small town; they now share a Netflix account.

I am reminded of the most illuminating thing Epley told me last year – that so much of social life is about reciprocity: “If I smile at you, you smile at me. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back.” It is easy to imagine the worst about people when we are locked in our homes, watching distressing news. But it is also easy to forget the extent to which our behaviour influences our experiences. If you are walking around not smiling at people, you can’t be surprised that they are not smiling at you. “That’s the truth of the world, Jessica,” Epley had said, pausing to let me know something big was coming. “Nobody waves – but everybody waves back.”

Although my world got smaller during lockdown, it got larger in other surprising ways. I am learning how to hold a conversation again, and I have travelled virtually to Paris, Lagos, New York, Milan, Atlanta, Colombo and a small village in Finland (and, all too fleetingly, Galway). I have listened to the voices and stories of strangers: a pastry chef, a drama teacher, a foreign-exchange student. Briefly, I understood what it was to be them – and they understood what it is like to be me.

I will give birth any week now: I imagine emerging from my quarantine like a bear with a new cub in spring: anxious, tentative, protective. But there is something new I can tell my cub: while there are many things to be scared of in this world, bonding with other people is not one of them. Then I will tell him what my parents have been saying to me for 20 years: pick up the damn phone.

(Source: The Guardian)

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