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.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Multi-tasking Behind the Wheel

Ten years ago, Bill Gates ordained that multi-tasking would be the wave of the future, and it was so. And now everyone is trying to get everything done at the same time.

Driving is an excellent example. The act of driving these days with so such traffic congestion is a boring task. Hours of monotony, punctuated by moments of terror.

But let’s face it, there are a lot of toys in cars now, to fill the monotonous times. Particularly cell phones.

You know it's been shown that driving while using a handheld cellphone is just as dangerous as driving drunk. And texting is even worse. California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington all prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving.

But, alas, Mr. Tech Manners doesn’t live in one of those states. He wished he did.


The other day Mr. Tech Manners was happily cruising on a nearby highway, driving at the pace of the traffic in his lane, when suddenly a sub-compact roared up. The baseball-capped driver parked himself about 5 feet behind him. Mr. Tech Manners glanced at him in the rear view mirror. He was so close he could almost read the boy's tattoos. And there was the cellphone appendage again. As this went on, the adjacent lane opened up, but the boy remained parked on his tail. Mr. Tech Manners pulled into the open third lane and continued. But after a momentary pause, the boy pulled in behind him and parked 5 feet back again!

Luckily, Mr. Tech Manners was getting near his exit. As he pulled off the ramp on one of his favorite back roads, he found himself behind a woman driving an SUV very slowly. He had no choice but to trundle along behind her at a prudent 3 car lengths.

From behind he noticed that the gadget was in active use, but suddenly she placed it on the steering wheel and furiously jabbed at it with her thumbs. Finally they arrived at the last traffic light before home, and the lady suddenly accelerated through it as it went from yellow to red. Mr. Tech Manners stopped and waited.

The instant the traffic light turned green, some meat-head 5 cars back honked. Mr. Tech Manners wondered where his tire iron was. And then, as he was about to proceed through the light, a driver on her cellphone found herself in the middle of the intersection, momentarily confused about which way to go. She spoke hurriedly into her cellphone, waved meekly at all us on-lookers, and then completed her turn. Minutes later Mr. Tech Manners was home, sweet home.


Cars are actually very old technology, but there are clearly some serious differences of opinion among people about how to drive them. Mr. Tech Manners recommends the following:

Keep up the pace - everyone knows about the unofficial “up to 5-10 miles over the speed limit” covenant. Driving slightly faster than the speed limit, especially on small roads, really keeps things moving. Driving too slow makes most of the drivers behind you angry and impatient.

Don’t tailgate or park yourself in traffic behind someone else while immersed in a call. It is just rude, pure and simple, and very unsafe. The old rule was to stay behind other drivers about one car length per 10 MPH in speed. These days though, when some swine is bound to cut in, so the old rules can only be used as a guide.

When you are turning, use your blinker (turn indicator). It’s old technology, but it still works. And put it on, say, 5-10 seconds before you turn so other drivers know what you’re thinking. Just slowing down isn't good enough.

Finally, just use some courtesy. When you are on a cellphone and encounter a busy traffic intersection, just put the phone in your lap for a few seconds. If you get into an extended conversation, just pull off the road for a minute. You’ll be glad you did. And so will your call mate and fellow drivers.


Now don’t misunderstand. Mr. Tech Manners loves cruising along on the open road, the wind blowing through his hair. But these days are not Steve McQueen’s days, back when Mr. Tech Manners, s a young man, used to race around the outer roads of his town late at night in his Mustangs. But today’s road congestion, even at night, makes that hard to do these days (even if Mr. Tech Manners was tempted).

And to his credit, he has never run into anybody or anything in his life. All Mr. Tech Manners' accidents have involved backing up. He wonders if that says something about his personality, but hasn’t decided what yet. I’ll let you decide.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Proper W@y to Email

Email - the word brings to some people a feeling of utter distaste, to others a happily mindless way to stay in touch with their friends, many of whom hate Email.

I dimly remember when Email was my friend a long time ago. When people actually used it more or less correctly. When it actually saved a lot of time. But now Email can be really oppressive, especially in corporate environments.

The masses got the genie out of the bottle, and now Email is used in a lot of different ways, depending on the person. The problem is that the recipient of the Email is pretty much on the taking end. Whatever anyone wants to say to you, they can, in Email. Some things they are afraid to say and might never say in person or over the phone.

But I’ve rekindled my relationship with Email in recent months. And part of it was remembering what it was originally for, on the business side - messaging.

One’s personal Email is a whole different story, of course.


Now Mr. Tech Manners is not trying to shut out the world. He loves his long notes from friends and family.

But he likes his business mail short and sweet. Simple decisions or updates, with maybe a little extra content, thoughtfully expressed. He particularly dislikes people “thinking aloud” in Email while they figure out why they are Emailing him in the first place.

Mr. Tech Manners fired up his computer and checked his fan Email. He imagined Laura, the one who reads and loves all his articles (and then papers her birdcage with them), as a beautiful brunette who bears a striking resemblance to Natalie Wood. Then, feeling guilty, he tried to think about baseball statistics.

Scanning his in-box he spotted the name of one of his editors in the In-box queue. He opened up the message, the subject of which was “Note”, which he began to read. And read. And read. He began to scan. She at least touched on some topics of importance, before adding another rather extensive update on the novel she is going to write someday, and ended with her typical schmoozy sign-off.

Returning to his in-box, he suddenly he saw a fresh Email from THE publisher. He feared it instantly as grave news. It was very short and just re-confirmed a deadline, but the tone of it seemed very terse. He felt like he was in the bottom of the well being yelled at. His heart racing, he decided it was time for a walk.


Mr. Tech Manners has a few simple suggestions for using Email:

At work, just send a message. If you have some brief content, that’s good too, but it should rarely be more than a screen or two of information. Attachments got a bad name for carrying viruses, but they really are the best way to send long documents or commentary to co-workers.

I think this frees up Email gridlock a little bit, by allowing the recipient to read the full message after they have cleaned up their Email In-Box.

And if you decide to answer an Email on the spot, remember that studies show you will spend an average of 15 minutes on it. That's why, the briefer, the better.

And look for patterns in your Email traffic. Some people write and respond to Emails at a certain time of day, and this is good to know. It helps you time your messages to them.

With regard hi and bye salutations - some people like names in the “To” and “From” spots, others don’t want or need it. Follow the lead of their Emails.

Be careful not to get too declarative in your message. That can read as tension, resentment, or scolding in an Email. Be gentle, but direct.

Just like romance in the office, there are pitfalls to Email. You generally shouldn't mix too much personal stuff into business stuff.

As a final tip, proof read and spell check all Emails. Take a long breath and scan the message through once more for typos or missing words before hitting the Send button.

Now when it comes to personal Emails, write your heart out. Long is good and even rambling is too, depending on the recipient. And if you find yourself Emailing someone and they just don’t respond, don't take it personally, they may be very busy, or not monitoring their Email. Then it’s often best to just try the telephone. It’s old technology, but it still works, at least some of the time.

On balance Mr. Tech Manners really likes Email. There is nothing like getting a great long note from someone close to you. And people are clearer, more articulate, and often more expressive in Email than on the phone, he tells me. I think I agree.

Friday, June 19, 2009

How to Get Mad at Your Computer

You know, technology is great, when it works. When it doesn’t work, bad things happen.

Like when you’re peacefully cranking along on your PC, and a pop-up window advertising virus detection takes over your screen and then shuts down your machine. None of the prescribed re-boot sequences work. Your computer is dead and so are you, deadline-wise.

Hackers! One summons images of medieval torture chambers to punish these meddling miscreants.

We’ve been blinded by science, all right, or blind-sided, depending on one’s point of view.

Mr. Tech Manners knows. He had two unpleasant confrontations with technology this week, once in a busy office - and the other alone at home.


Mr. Tech Manners was at the publisher’s office and wanted to print out his latest masterpiece. He entered the common printing room, surrounded by people in cubicles. He laid down the article, pushed the PRINT button, and breathed a brief sigh of relief just before the printer emitted a sickening grinding sound.

He tried to open the printer, using a diagram on it, no doors would open.

He checked the paper bin and it, unbelievably, it had sufficient paper. Then he noticed that the printer had gone into a strange new mode, “SCRU_U” flashing on its status LCD.

Mr. Tech Manners spied the “Printer Service” phone on the wall and lifted it. It was dead. He could feel his temperature rising. He silently counted to ten, but kind of quickly.

Then he remembered the second rule in a time of crisis. Ask the receptionist.

He proceeded warily to the receptionist’s station, but she was gone. Maybe even gone for the day, he thought with a shudder.

Mr. Tech Manners returned to the printing cubicle. He placed a clearly-lettered “Out of Order” sign on the printer, tip-toed out of the building and drove home.


Mr. Technology Manner’s computer at home is narcoleptic. It goes into sleep mode at odd times, and when it drops off to its sweet reveries sometimes it doesn’t want to wake up again.

For anything.

And it seems to fall off to sleep most often as he is about to make a deadline. He wonders sometimes if it can sense his frantic keystrokes as the feared hour approaches.

Like yesterday. The screen just went black. “Not Now!” he shouted. "I haven’t saved the best part!” Mr. Tech Manners tried all the prescribed ways of waking the damn thing up, but nothing.
Now normally, Mr. Tech Manners is a peaceful man, but some things really set him off. Computer problems are one of them.

Mr. Tech Manners eyed his mouse and it began to look suspiciously like a baseball he could throw at pointblank range through the monitor screen. That would hurt it. It would know who’s boss then.

Or yank the laptop out of the dock and throw it through the damn window. Mr. Tech Manners paused for a second, savoring how good it would feel to hear the infernal thing smashing to pieces on the driveway.

The worst thing was that he knew the machine was in total control. He was just an anguished spectator of his pathetic dependence.

He imagined it like an old submarine movie. The hacker captain grabs the microphone on the bridge and barks, “Attention all chips. Our man got an extension on today’s deadline and we are looking at a 7:55 PM shutdown. Is everyone clear on that?” All the chips blink back affirmative. “OK, printer ready for paper jam as our Plan B?” The printer makes a faint beep to signal that it is.

As he was leaving the room to find a blunt instrument to apply to the problem, the screen blinked on again. He carefully stepped back to his chair and sat down. Everything was there. He tentatively began to type. It worked. He finished the article very, very quickly, sent it off, and decided he had had way too much technology for one day.


Mr. Technology Manner’s advice about how to get mad at your computer? In social or business situations, if something goes wrong with your office technology:

Keep your cool

Follow directions

Seek help, and

Be thoughtful of others.

But when you are by yourself, he told me, you are on your own. ”Just do what comes naturally”, he chuckled. “When you’ve tried everything, just go out and chop down a tree or something. It’s better for your mental health.”

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cellphone Etiquette in Convenience Stores

What is it with cellphones?

Some of us use them and love them, some of us use them and hate them. And some of us don’t use them at all and despise them to death.

To some they are the lifeline to their soul, to others they are the Bain of their existence.

But cellphones are here to stay. The problem is that we haven’t the faintest idea how to use them socially.

In cars, in stores, in restaurants, on the street, you name it. Everyone within earshot has to listen to what anyone thinks they feel like saying out loud on their cell phone. There actually seems to be a “Cell Phone” high that people get into.To demonstrate, let me relate an episode that Mr. Tech Manners experienced recently:

Mr. Tech Manners entered a local convenience store, smiled at the checkout clerk, and proceeded down the aisle, mentally checking to see if there was anything he needed. "Mouthwash? Nope. Deodorant? Nope. Car air freshener? Nope, the one in the convertible was still working fine." He chuckled as he passed the condom section.

Mr. Tech Manners heard the young lady chattering on her cellphone as soon as she entered the other end of the store. Holding the dreaded gadget to her head, she also got to the checkout counter before he did, where the teenage girl listened to her speak to someone else for a moment while the lady shoved several items across the counter in her direction.

Naturally one item fell off the counter onto the floor and she swapped the phone from one ear to the other and snapped up the wayward item and tossed it toward the clerk, while still talking. As the clerk did the transaction, the lady got bored and turned away.

The young man in line beside Mr. Tech Manners began to vibrate. The clerk smiled at the people in line, and then leaned over the end of the counter display to get the woman’s attention. She returned to grab a pen and scribble her name, and then turned away.

The clerk smiled at Mr. Tech Manners and took his coins for a newspaper, but the cellphone lady had proceeded only as far as the exit door and then stopped dead in the threshold, as she eagerly fulfilled her part of the phone conversation. Mr. Tech Manners approached the door, but she was still there, but turned the other way. Suddenly she sensed something and spun and saw Mr. Tech Manners and then smiled. Then she paused and looked over his head for a moment. He began to wonder if he had become invisible. After a couple seconds, as he was about to try to squeeze by her, she turned and marched out the store with a determined trot.


On the way home, Mr. Tech Manners pondered the main things to remember about using a cellphone in a small market.

First, complete your conversations outside. No one inside is interested in them.
Second, don’t initiate calls from the store unless you have to and then go outside or to a private corner where you can speak discretely. Voices are funny. Some people, with unusual voices, can be heard amazing distances.
Third, when checking out or passing through lines and customer traffic lanes, forget the phone for a minute.

Oh, Mr. Tech Manners has a cellphone all right, in the console of his car. He uses it mostly for telling people he’s late for meetings or something. Of course, his cellphone number is very confidential. He told me his family has it, but anyone else would have to pry it out of his cold dead hands. Mr. Tech Manners really likes his quiet time.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Renaissance of Love Letters

According to private sources, Email may be the best thing that ever happened to love, letter-wise.

With the recent appointment of a Cyber Security Czar by President Obama the secret is out. Basically, security on the internet hardly exists. Millions and millions of computers are infected with dozens of eavesdropping viruses, adware, spyware, and who-knows-what-ware. Practically all PC users have had virus problems unless they use a Mac.

Thus, with the downgrade of the Internet, the privacy of Emails has become a major issue.

Particularly when it comes to love. Your private thoughts are not safe if you send them by Email. This is a problem.You know, love is a tricky thing. It is done in private. Emails just don’t cut it for love letters anymore, security-wise.

Perhaps this is a small thing. But it could be the start of something big. Love letters are coming back. The ones you agonize over, write, stamp, and send. The last true intimate way of expressing one’s passions over distance, it turns out.

Of course, they cost more now, 44 cents. But that is still a small price to pay for love. Just ask Mr. Tech Manners.


Mr. Tech Manners’ nephew has been visiting this past week, and the boy is officially smitten. In Love. All the tell tale signs are there: he just hangs around the house, listless, haunted, and pulling his classmate’s picture from his back pocket now to gaze at it wistfully. He seems to check his cell phone several times an hour for messages, and then mopes some more.

“How are things going today?” Mr. Tech Manners sometimes asks. His nephew just shrugs.

“No texts, no Email, no phone calls, no nothing,” he moans. “She’s completely forgotten about me. I knew this would happen.”

“Why don’t you write her a letter, she’ll probably get it tomorrow.

His nephew shrugged again, and sat down in front of the TV but didn’t turn it on. He just stared at the black screen. It was painful to watch.

“OK,” Mr. Tech Manners said. “Just an idea. But if you do write one, write it by hand. It’s better that way.”

Several hours later, his nephew marched into his office, an envelope in hand.

“Well, I did it. I still don’t know whether I should. Do you have a stamp?”

Mr. Tech Manners handed him one, and added “the mail girl has already been here today, but we can put the letter in the mailbox on the corner, if you want it to go out today.”

Arriving at the mailbox, Mr. Tech Manners stood by, while his nephew opened the mailbox lid, but then went catatonic. He turned to Mr. Technology Manners, clueless.

“Do you want me to put it in?” Robotically, his nephew handed him the letter, Mr. Tech Manners put it in. The two silently returned to the house.

The next day, up in his office Mr. Tech Manners could hear his nephew pacing around downstairs. Then he heard the nephew’s cell phone ring, followed by what sounded like a excited chattering. This was followed by the sound of several “Yes!”, “Yes!”, “Yes!” hoots, and soon by the scent of cheeseburgers cooking. Love can make a guy hungry!


Try it! Shower the people you love with love. There is nothing like writing or getting a love letter. It really sticks out among all those awful bills.

Write one to the one you love. Then you can spend the next day or two just like Mr. Tech Manners’ nephew, pacing back and forth, second-guessing every word in the letter, even sending it! Just like the old days. What a thrill!

Unfortunately, over the years, a lot of us have gotten used to typing. So when we opt for it, our handwriting isn’t what it used to be. Lord Byron love letters, handwriting-wise, these are not.

But nevertheless, as an alternative to tweeting, calling, blogging, or Emailing, love letters seem to be coming back into style. Could drive-ins be far behind! Hard to say.

But me, I’m betting my 44 cents on love. I just wish I could read my own handwriting.