Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Mysteries of Answering Machines

Most of us aren’t very hopeful when we make a phone call these days. The odds seem enormous that the person we’re trying to reach is away, busy, or out-of-range. That makes the answering machine, and its cousin voicemail, a part of our lives - like it or not.

By the way, in Japan where this concept originated, answering machines are far less used and considered rude in some contexts.

That’s because answering machines give the user options, often at the expense of the caller. On the other hand, some callers leave long messages and inevitably jam up the machine’s ability to accept more calls.

The truth is that almost all of us hate answering machines. We usually have something we need to talk about with people – but in a dialog, rather than just a one-way message. And at the same time, using answering machines can be a real pain.

I put this conundrum to Mr. Tech Manners, and he tipped me off to the magic of answering machines – managing time. Oh, he knows. He’s never been a huge fan of answering machines, but he uses one himself. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Understanding time, and time-shifting, is the key, he says.


Mr. Tech Manners was visiting a writer friend the other day at her home office. As they had coffee, he occasionally heard the muted sound of messages being left on her machine which she keeps down the hall. Their chat turned to checking the machine.

“Nope, nope. No way," she said. Work comes first. After I’m finished with what I’m working on, then I’ll deal with the phone stuff. Besides, most of my clients and friends use Email, and hate the phone as much as I do.” He parted as she returned to her work.

When he got home, he checked his own messages.

The first one, from The Publisher, and was short and sweet. The second was from Mr. Tech Manners’s sister, who took a long time remembering why she called. The third was a “just calling” message from a fellow Red Sox fan. But the fourth message was jolting -from an old frazzled friend. “Are you there? Are you there?” he almost shouted. He always hated getting the machine and didn’t seem to understand them very well. “Pick Up! Pick Up!” he howled. Mr. Tech Manners tried calling back, but his friend was out of range on his cellphone.

The machine had no more messages. He was glad to escape to his writing.


Mr. Tech Manners tells me that “timing isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only important thing. That’s really what answering machines all about – time-shifting.” He says there’s just a few things to remember.


Don’t assume people screen their calls. The person you have called is either not there, or has queued your call in their priorities. Very busy people always have many tasks at hand, particularly during business hours. They may not have time to chat just then.

Leave short messages. “Just the facts, maam.” If you have a lot to say, send it by Email. And think of what you want to say before you call, in case you have to leave a message.

Respect people’s schedule. Some people take naps, do errands, whatever, according to a rough routine. After a while you can get to know their schedule, and that helps to avoid catching them at bad times.

Using Answering Machines

First, check your in-box regularly. That’s only common courtesy. It may make sense to do it once an hour, or every few hours, but stay in touch.

Second, there is no need for a long outgoing message, usually “Hi” and your name or number is plenty. For example, by now, everyone knows how important the call is to you. And if you are going out for a while, reduce or eliminate the number of rings that callers have to endure, waiting for the machine to pick up.


“Let’s declare peace, caller and called alike,” Mr. Tech Manners says. “We just have to respect each other’s time a little better, and finally accept the concept of time-shifting.”

He chuckled as he remembered taking so much time to record his first outgoing message, years ago. To a background of a raucous Huey Lewis tune, he crafted a mysterious receiving message that ran on forever. But then, when he called his machine, it just sounded like 10 seconds of mayhem. He never really trusted The Machine after that. But things change, and he grew to appreciate its convenience. He does reminisce sometimes about the times before we had them, though.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to relive many of those good old days,” he chuckled as we parted. “But I just haven’t got the time. Maybe later.”