Don’t Leave a Message After the Tone


Why does nobody bother to check their voicemail messages any more? Henry Jeffreys investigates the strange death of the answerphone…

Have you noticed how nobody seems to call you back anymore? Don’t worry, it’s not because people don’t like you, the truth is that many people and even businesses no longer regularly check their messages. Furthermore some people I know actually consider it rude to leave a message. They think it an imposition comparable with turning up at someone’s front door unannounced.

The only people who now leave messages for me now are my wife and my parents, oh and recorded voices telling me that I’ve been missold PPI. My father still starts his by announcing the time, date and who he is. Bless him. That was how we were told to leave messages when I got my first office job in the PR department of a publisher after leaving university. The answerphone was a big thing then though by this time it had been rebranded as voicemail to make it seem more cutting edge. People would record elaborate outgoing messages always containing the superfluous phrase ‘I am either on another call or away from my desk’ and ending with their mobile number repeated twice. Some would last two minutes. It was important that you changed your message before going on holiday or colleagues would delight in pointing out that your message was out of date. It was very childish. Sometimes when out drunk I would leave peculiarly formal messages reminding myself to do things.

It wasn’t all work though, the answerphone had  romantic connotations to. When I first lived away from my parents, I would come home, see a red light and wondered who it could be from? (it was normally my mother.) Leaving a voice message for someone you fancied was a rite of passage. That’s why it’s such ripe territory for comedy. My favourite answerphone moment is in the sitcom Peep Show where the main protagonist Mark leaves a message for the woman he’s keen on, Sophie, that ends with him singing ‘and then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like I like you. . .’ Rather than winning her over she plays it back to a rival for her affections who then sings it mockingly to Mark. I doubt any of this will mean much to anyone under the age of 30.  Nowadays young people when courting just send each other photos of their genitals. To them answerphone heavy films such as when Harry Met Sally or Swingers probably seem as much period pieces as epistolary novels.

It was about seven years ago that I noticed that voicemail etiquette was breaking down. The people I called weren’t changing their outgoing messages anymore. They were sometimes months out of date or the voice was not the person whose phone number it was. People didn’t call me back as often. I got a bit paranoid.  Then I started a new job and the voicemail system was so labyrinthine that I stopped changing my message too. It didn’t seem to matter. If people couldn’t get hold of me immediately then they would send an email. I stopped recording a message for my mobile phone years ago.

It was the smartphone that finished off the old recorded message. When you have all those exciting ways of staying in touch at your fingertip, facebook, twitter, that one where you can send explicit pictures that self-destruct once seen, leaving a message that you have to pay to listen to seems ridiculous. But all these new ways to get in touch are proving to be new ways for people to ignore you. Often the only way to get someone’s attention now is to comment on a holiday snap on Facebook or indeed to pop round to their house and ring on the doorbell.

We’re in a situation now where most younger people don’t listen to messages at all whereas most Oldie readers I’m sure consider it the height of bad manners not to return calls. To prevent misunderstandings we need to agree that answerphone is finished. Wasn’t there something profoundly irritating anyway about listening to someone, especially someone you don’t know, droning on and on knowing that you will have to listen to the end in case they say something important? The answerphone was a bore’s paradise, from the overly wordy outgoing message, to the stream-of-consciousness incoming and worst of all the comedy message where you think you are speaking to someone but actually it’s a machine. Hilarious.  And there’s a special place in hell reserved for those who check their voicemail using the loudspeaker on public transport.

In future just send a text. From now on my voicemail is going to say, don’t leave a message and then I’ll stop listening to any that come in. Unless they’re from my wife of course. I’m not stupid.

A version of this post originally appeared in The Oldie magazine.

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About Author Profile: Henry Jeffreys

Henry Jeffreys was born in Harrow, Middlesex. He worked in the wine trade for two years and then moved into publishing with stints at Hodder & Stoughton, Bloomsbury and Granta. Under the name Henry Castiglione, he reviewed books for the Telegraph Under the name Blake Pudding he was a founder member of the London Review of Breakfasts website as well as a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury, 2013). Since 2010 he has been writing mainly about drink under his own name. He is wine columnist for the Lady magazine, contributes to the Guardian and was shortlisted for the Fortnum & Mason drink writer of the year 2013 for his work in the Spectator. He is writing a history of Britain told through alcoholic drinks called Empire of Booze. He blogs at Henry’s World of Booze.

9 thoughts on “Don’t Leave a Message After the Tone

  1. Worm
    October 22, 2015 at 10:44

    painfully true!!! seeing the voicemail thing ping up on my phone fills me with existential dread

    October 22, 2015 at 11:00

    In the US, it always was “answering machine”, not “answerphone”. And “voicemail” is a reasonable term, or no worse than any other. I know where the household answering machine is; at work we have had one or another computer hooked up to the telephone system to record unanswered calls. Undoubtedly it uses a machine, but what else that machine does I can’t say. “Mail” also gives the flavor of asynchrony: one needn’t wait till the intended recipient is read to send a letter, and the recipient needn’t read it immediately on delivery.

    Probably sixty percent of the messages on our machine are from loan vendors, urging us to call to check their rates, terms, and conditions. It could be that the percentage of such calls is higher, though, and that only the careless organizations, who do not program their systems to detect answering machines, make it through.

    The system at work now forwards an audio file to email. This is something that could be of use, but seldom is. Google Voice will both add an audio file and try to transcribe it. The transcription might work for Henry Higgins; on the average American mumbler’s voice it is generally more entertaining than useful. However, if you just need to harvest the telephone numbers of persons who don’t ever want to hear from you again, then Google Voice to GMail to Google Docs is an excellent path.

  3. October 22, 2015 at 17:54

    The only thing more tiresome than listening to people’s answerphone messages is listening to people telling you their dreams.

      October 22, 2015 at 23:22

      How about a series of answerphone messages consisting of people telling you their dreams?

    October 22, 2015 at 18:09

    I haven’t reached the point where I think it rude to leave a voice mail message (or be left one), but calling someone on the telephone just seems unbelievably rude, so I tend to only call people when I think that they won’t answer.

  5. October 22, 2015 at 19:34

    I’m with David as far as phone calls are concerned. When the phone rings, my wife and I behave as if someone has climbed into our garden. It’s a violation. We have gone from an answerphone in the 90s to voicemail in the noughties, before finally settling on nothing. Coming home to a message-free house has been a liberation.

    P.S. – I completely agree with Brit about people’s dreams.

    October 23, 2015 at 10:18

    ‘It’s Lynn, Fred, John, Mary, Betty here, just give me a call when you are free.
    Can someone explain to me what is ill mannered or boring or luddite about that scenario and why I, a person who was around computers in the mid sixties, worked on the development of fax in the early seventies and early adopted cellphones in the eighties and therefore may be considered as a member of the revolution, should not do the decent thing and pick the receiver up and return the call?

    Depends on the particular pond in which one swims, I s’pose, and call blocker.

    Jonathan Law
    October 25, 2015 at 17:32

    It was maybe 18 months ago that I first heard someone say that they no longer answered their land line at all, but only kept it for the Internet/ TV package — startling to hear at the time but now increasingly commonplace. I suppose the idea is that anyone you actually want to hear from will use the mobile, or just text. Could it be that the cold-callers and PPI-mongers are putting themselves out of business, through their hyperactivity?

    I was never much good at keeping up with people by phone, but increasingly I miss the contact. There ‘s nothing quite like hearing a voice, and reading ‘Loadza Lols!!!’ is no substitute for a shared guffaw. One of my current resolutions is actually to ring up old friends more frequently, with little or no pretext, but I realise I might have to be careful. When you reach my age (50s) there’s always that flutter of fear when you pick up the receiver and find it’s someone you haven’t spoken to for a year or more — an old college chum or neglected relative. There are reasons to think that the news may not be good.

    October 26, 2015 at 16:30

    Unless I’m completely hallucinating, my parents used to take us on Sunday drives and would “drop by” the homes of friends and family. It’s possible that my parents were simply being rude, but my memory is that the people with dropped in on seemed to think it was a perfectly plausible thing to do, and that people sometimes dropped in on us.

    Times and manners change; I wonder why no one has ever noticed that before.

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