Please Leave a Message

In the early nineties answering machines on phones were ubiquitous, which means that nearly everyone had left a message on one and therefore knew what to do upon hearing the greeting. For some reason, that didn’t stop people from leaving instructions on their machine telling people how to leave a message. Who they imagined would be calling them who wouldn’t know what to do once they received a message is hard to say. I don’t think that was the problem, however. I think instead they were caught between two questions: “What message do I leave if it is not the standard set of instructions,” and “How do I tell people they have reached a machine?”

This conundrum arose when my roommate and I tried to set up a new answering machine. I initially had the message say, “This is a machine,” since that is all the information I felt the caller needed. My roommate felt that was too rude so he changed that to “Hello, you have reached our residence. No one is available to take your call at this time so please leave a message after the beep.” Regardless of my argument that everyone knew what to do, my roommate demanded the more polite message stand. I wasn’t being purely reactionary, for I found far too many messages were overly lengthy and unnecessary. In such a case, the caller, standing in the cold at the payphone, or ringing from their car, would have to endure a message for no good reason. If a machine is answering they knew no person was either present or willing, and if they wanted to leave a message they knew perfectly well how that is done.

Once another roommate moved in, I told him what I thought when he was setting up his new answering machine. He agreed heartily, partly because he was always interested in anything that went against the status quo he’d been brought up in, and partly because what I said made sense. In his case, for he was overly verbose and redundant, even his truncated message was still longer than it needed to be: “You have reached a machine. You know what to do.” Despite my plaints that telling someone they know what to do is not useful—for if they don’t they wouldn’t learn it from the message, and if they do telling them will achieve nothing—that message stood for a number of months. He was constitutionally incapable of saying anything quickly, and also he liked to lord his perceived cleverness over other people, so the longer message was his statement to the world that he had out-thought the masses. This predilection had landed him in trouble more than once, but it seemed to be impossible to curb.

For instance, when his ex-wife and he were fighting over custody of their child, he confided in me that she was a bad risk due to her inability to control her temper. “Why don’t you record her using the answering machine,” I told him. “Record what she says and then when she freaks out you will have evidence in court.”

Whether the evidence would be admissible or not turned out to be a moot question, for he engaged her in a lengthy and artificially saccharine conversation—at least on his end—trying to bait her into a rage, and then, to cap it off, he could not resist pointing out to her that he’d recorded the entire conversation. His self-satisfied grin when he hung up the phone and pressed stop on the answering machine was infuriating. He actually thought he was being clever. he had once again proved to her that he was much smarter, and thought further ahead.

“You are such an idiot,” I told him.

“That was great. I have her freaking out on the recording.”

“But you couldn’t resist . . . you couldn’t help but show her how much cleverer you were, so you told her. You’re a moron. Now she will be recording every conversation you have with her and you will never get her to freak out again. Just because you had to show how much smarter you were.”

That self-perception of his wittiness led him to leave a much lengthier message than necessary on the machine when we lived together. He could not resist but show people he was cleverer, and to shop around his new great idea. As well, once he had an audience, he had to hold onto them, and if that made the message longer, then it was a price he was willing to pay. He went on to make speeches for a living, so mercifully he found a profession that ideally suited his penchant for verbosity and wit.

When I lived alone and could control my own answering machine, its message was, “This is a machine.” Although some people complained, they knew exactly how to engage with it. The message contained all they needed to know, and instead of wondering if they have found a dead phone, or a non-functioning machine, they could be assured that they could leave their message and I would receive it. A few years later, I changed the message on my newer machine to, “Si tu no estas aqui.” That line from one of my favourite Spanish songs means, “If you are not here . . ..”  The hanging ellipsis means the caller knows what to do, and the line in Spanish, even if they don’t understand it, will indicate they have reached a machine. If they were uncertain the voice was mine, they shortly learned that it was, and before long they became accustomed to it.

Answering machines are largely automatic now, and many of the messages are not modifiable. Oddly, they have institutionalized the lengthy message I tried to avoid years ago and even to this day an answering machine tells the caller to leave a message after the beep, despite it being some forty years since answering machines were invented and everyone knows exactly what to do.

Interestingly, this same redundant information has found its way to YouTube and similar video sharing sites. At some point in a large percentage of online videos someone appears to tell the viewer that they should Press Like and Subscribe if they liked the video. Once again, this information is entirely unnecessary. Anyone who is that new to the internet that they are not already aware of this option will likely never be able to find the video again despite subscribing—if they can even figure out how to do that—and all others know what to do if they wish. The request achieves nothing, but again, the content creators are caught like my old roommate. They want to say something of the matter to their audience, but don’t know what message to leave. They could merely say, “This is a video online” but I think that would feel redundant even to those who most eagerly want to insert demands to subscribe to their video.

Curiously, even as the format of our digital interactions changes, the inflexible quality in the equation is the human creator of the message and their notion of the receiver. Perhaps that explains why such redundant information is so resistant to change that we still have not excised it from our answering machines or YouTube videos.

The latest venue I have found this type of messaging appearing is Facebook Marketplace. I wasn’t aware, until I was posting something for sale, that when people click a button saying they are interested, Facebook sends a pointless message to the seller. The message, rather infuriatingly asks, “Is this item still available?” Once I received a few of these I began to wonder if people were leaving postings up of items that had sold and this was a reaction to that, or if people ignored the for sale marker, or if they didn’t know what else to say. Rather like people telling others to click on a link to subscribe, or speak after the beep to leave a message, I thought the potential buyers didn’t know what else to write and therefore wrote something trite and pointless.

I was wrong. Facebook itself, mimicking our most mentally exhausting tendencies, is sending out a message that the sender does not intend, and therefore forcing some millions of people to reply, “Yes, it is still available” even while we wonder what was wrong with the world. This works for Facebook advertising, for it means that both parties spend more time online looking at ads, rather like the lengthy messages on answering machines means that long distance callers are spending their precious paid minutes listening to nonsense while they wait to leave their message, but for a system made by us, for ostensibly for our convenience, it wastes our time and energy.

A friend was over when I was working on my dissertation and he was annoyed when he used my word processor to write a letter. I had configured the autocorrect so that I could merely type two letters, such as pm, and the word processor would insert Postmodern. It was a term I used constantly, so I took the time to make an autocorrect entry. He wanted to tell his friend he would be arriving at six pm, but knew too little about the autocorrect space bar cue to put a space first and then return to his word. I explained the matter to him and although he understood, as a hopeful graduate student himself, I could tell he thought it was excessively precious. My dissertation was about historiographic metafiction, I told him, I only need to type hm.

Our time is precious, and that is why we built machines in the first place. We have only a little time on the planet, and even if we are only spending it watching YouTube videos and buying junk through Facebook Marketplace, we still should demand that our time is our own. I am not exactly conducting an efficiency war, and just because I’m a writer you can tell that I have lost all the battles before I start, but I want some of my time back, and I want to hold those accountable who are bleeding my life away for either their financial gain, or mere narcissistic pigheadedness.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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