Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Why do young people have so much antipathy towards leaving a message?

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The Independent Online

“People under 35 scarcely use it”. This can apply to so many things these days. A map? A dictionary? A fountain pen? But this observation – made by an American academic – referred to something born of the modern world: voicemail.

He was responding to the news that one of the world’s biggest corporations, Coca-Cola, had decided to switch off the voicemail function on the phones of all employees at its headquarters in Atlanta. The reason given was that the company wanted “to simplify the way we work and increase productivity”, so when callers can’t reach the person they want, they are invited not to leave a voice message but to “find an alternative way” of making contact.

What kind of world are we living in, when even a technological system is rendered obsolete? We are used to human beings getting replaced by machines – the self-checkout at supermarkets being the most egregious example – but when a recorded voice is given the boot, we know things have taken a serious turn. Apparently, people under 35 have an antipathy towards leaving a message, and many of them don’t have the energy, time or inclination to listen to one, so text and email is considered the most efficient, foolproof way of making contact.

 

This may well be true, but I would like to register a plea in mitigation on behalf of voicemail before it is consigned to the technological graveyard. I cannot be alone in feeling the pleasure of making that call you dreaded, the one where you’ve got to apologise for something, or the duty call to someone you’ve not been in touch with for ages, or the one where you’re delivering bad news, and, after half a dozen rings, you hear that perfectly constructed sentence: “I’m sorry I’m not here at the moment, but leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

Oh, joy. This gives you the chance to avoid a tricky conversation, and to express your sentiments in a natural, unmediated and authentic way. And you can do so without interruption. A text, or email, just wouldn’t have the same quality. A voicemail is strangely personal: a text is the opposite. For the recipient, too, it’s a boon: the satisfaction of being able to screen a call and then hearing a recognisable human voice.

I have some friends whose voicemail message urges the caller to send a text instead. This must be against every rule of modern manners (I may ask for a ruling from Debrett’s). It’s subliminal message is: I’m much too busy to listen to your rambling message, and I don’t want to hear your voice, so let’s keep our communication on a perfunctory level. In such instances, I leave a voice message just to irritate them.

Not least, voicemails are something of an historical record. I had a colleague who, at the end of a year, made a tape of all the voice messages he’d received and catalogued them, in the way people keep old diaries. I really wish I’d done the same. Hearing the voices of new and old friends, some no longer with us, is something I’m sure I’d find comforting. Coca-Cola, of all people, should know what’s the real thing.

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