Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Pushing my buttons

I’m prepared to speak, but the strangely familiar voice interrupts me. The voice is instantly recognizable, though it belongs to neither a friend nor a celebrity. It’s the voice of a woman I’ve never met, though she speaks to me often.

She always says the same thing.

“To leave a voice message, wait for the tone. To leave a callback number, press five. To hear more options, press the pound key.”

The voice pauses, then prompts: “Record at the tone.”

Americans have been calling and leaving messages for each other for about 30 years. The first telephone answering machines hit the market in the early 1970s, becoming a nearly ubiquitous household item by the mid ‘80s.

While telephony has since given us other ways to connect with those who might not be available when we call—the nearly extinct paging, the reigning king texting—we still use phones to call, and we still leave messages. So we still need outgoing messages.

The words said in an outgoing message hardly matter. The point, it seems, is all about timing. The message should be of an appropriate duration to allow the caller to adjust from initiating a conversation to summarizing his thoughts into a brief gloss including his expectations, if any, of a return call.

This duration is about three to five seconds.

Less, and the caller is likely to be caught off guard and will begin their message with a series of ums and ahs, while feeling the pressure of the open microphone recording their every ineloquent utterance. More, and the caller likely becomes antsy, keenly aware of the process he’s forced to wait through—insult to the injury of not reaching his party initially.

While the words we say in an outgoing message are of little import, I find the prerecorded “Please leave your message for [insert name]” option overly cold. It implies a perennially over-busy existence, as if Insert Name is too time-strapped and important to record a proper greeting.

But back to the voice.

If we agree that it’s unlikely we’ll ever do away with the de rigueur personal greeting, and that that greeting is sufficient in priming callers for what to do next, why the voice? Why does she—stranger that she is—insert herself into what’s essentially a conversation between two familiar parties?

We’re all quite familiar with how to leave messages. Her directions are as helpful and instructive as a how-to guide accompanying a soup spoon.

I have never pressed 5 to leave a callback number. If I’m calling someone’s mobile phone, which is generally the case, I assume that phone will capture and store my number. Likewise I have never pressed the pound key for more options. I wonder now what those options might be.

Perhaps pressing 3 would get a sponge cake delivered to my door.

What if one of the options was to let the voice know she’s not needed on future calls? That would be a button worth pressing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm totally gonna press 3 and find out.