This past week I called a friend on her cell phone and, finding her “unavailable,” I was passed on to her voice mail. The automated message proceeded to explain the process by which I could leave a message. (I believe that most tribes in the far-reaches of the Amazon Jungle now understand this process. Could we cut to the chase, please? We get it—wait for the beep.) I noted my friend’s carefully chosen and somewhat stilted tone and came to a relatively unimportant conclusion. As a rule, I dislike modern technologies. I heat my soup on the stove top rather than in the microwave (though I would cook on an open stove in the backyard if Jim didn’t think I would somehow burn down the neighborhood.) I rarely answer the call-waiting that was included our telephone service. I still own a pen and have been known to put it to use now and again. But among the resented but tolerated intruders lurks one of my most loathed technologies—voice mail and its more backward cousin, the answering machine. 

What is not to love about these automated wonders which magically communicate our messages from Aunt Suzie, Dr. So-and-So and our son’s basketball coach, you ask? Well, for starters there is the announcement recording. Never do I feel such pressure to make a good impression, to strike just the right balance between clever and to the point as I do when called upon to push the button and begin speaking after the beep. This is, of course, ridiculous because the people that are calling fall into three basic categories: 1) people that already know me and are entirely certain of my uncoolness. No need to try and pull the wool over their eyes. It isn’t as if one day, upon hearing an astoundingly amusing but considerately succinct announcement on our machine, my friends will suddenly reconsider their basic assumptions with regards to my hip rating; 2) people entirely unknown to me who are only trying to inform me that the gas bill is due or that Sam has a dentist appointment next Thursday at two. I truly pity these creatures of the telephone. I can only imagine how many unhappy hours they spend listening to worn out clichés recorded for all to hear, over and over again; and 3) my dear friend “Toll Free Number.” Jim and I receive innumerable calls from “Toll Free” and his good buddy “Unknown.” Unfortunately, they never seem to leave a message for us to return their call. If this last category of calls were the only ones we received, there would be no problem whatsoever. I would simply record nails on a chalk board and be done with it. 

Even worse than announcement recording is message leaving. At least with your own machine, you have the option to delete and try again. (I have noticed a growing trend of “If you are unhappy with your message” options for which I am grateful, though sadly I will never be happy with my message, so what’s the use?) With message leaving, it’s do or die and I must say, I usually end up in the latter category—dying of embarrassment. Oh my, did I really just say that? Again, my failed message attempts fall into one of several categories, but for the sake of parallelism I will note three: 1) the casual message that starts off okay but then begins to ramble, leavings lots of impertinent details and ending with a mortified mumbling of apologies. Often times, I am lulled into over-confidence by a good beginning which leads to my ultimate demise. I am not having a conversation with the person, simply leaving a message; 2) the trying-to-be-brief-and-to-the-point message which is usually a result of having left a casual message sometime in the recent past. This message attempts to leave only relevant information but ends up sounding too businesslike and sometimes downright rude. Frequently, after having left a rather demanding message—“This is Amy. Call me.”—I try to cover up and apologetically add “If you want. When you get a chance. Ya know, whenever.” Smooth, Real smooth; 3) Message from Hell. This is probably the most common message left by me these days. This is the one where I am hiding in the kitchen pantry trying to leave a message and the children discover me and begin terrorizing one another at high volume right into the phone receiver. If they can, they also try to throw juicy tid bits out there for all to hear like “Mommy, Sam ate all the candy you bribed us with and then Bailey hit him over the head with the bowl and now there is blood all over the crumbs that Andrew is licking off the floor, and I didn’t get any.” Things like that. Face burning, I turn into the phone and say “So anyway, Doctor, Thursday at two is fine. Thanks for the message and have a great day. If you want to. Or not. Ya know, whichever.”

One Response to “Voice Mail, Answering Machines, and Life “After the Beep””

  1. layla solms


    my husband tells me to never leave messages if at all possible, because it leaves all the power with the other person, which i in turn have adopted by almost never returning calls…i don’t think that is what he had in mind, nor my beloved practice of call screening…
    i guess i am just a mean and horrible person…autonomy may be a bad drug for me


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