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  • Writer's pictureBruce Campbell MD

Rage Against the Answering Machine

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

-Annie Dillard

My grandchildren will never know the sound of a busy signal. It’s true. The Modern Era has brought many miracles to our lives including telephones that are always answered. When I get a busy signal these days, I re-dial, thinking there must have been some kind of systems error.

Occasionally, a living human being answers my call. That occurrence is unexpected, though.

The third alternative is the most common.

I dial. After two rings, a pre-recorded voice greets me. If I am standing, I sit. If I am sitting, I lean back. If I am leaning back, well, you get the picture.

“Hello. And thank you for calling Dr. Bob’s office.”

This phrase is fine. It's reassuring to know I reached the correct number. Whenever I visit Dr. Bob’s office, I have a good experience. I really like Dr. Bob and his staff. Having the recording offer thanks for my call is courteous but not necessary. Knowing how kind Dr. Bob is, I find the message charming.

"Our regular business hours are 8:00 to 4:30 Monday through Friday."

This is useful information, but only if I had been calling Dr. Bob to find out when there is someone available to answer the phone. Perhaps having this information as part of the recorded message could help me orient myself someday if I suddenly awaken from a deep sleep not knowing if it is day or night. “I’ll call Dr. Bob’s office to find out if it is daytime or not! If I hear the recording, it is probably dark outside.” There are, of course, more efficient ways to determine this. I check my watch. It is 10:00 a.m. Oh, no! Why doesn’t Dr. Bob answer? Is he hurt? Is everything all right?

"If you are hearing this message during our normal business hours, it just means we can’t get to the phone right now."

Thank God.

“Please be assured we will take your call in the order in which it was received.”

I like this phrase. An egalitarian approach to the seemingly trivial task of phone triage strikes me as a small moment of justice in an otherwise disordered world. If someone extremely important called immediately after I did – the President, perhaps, or maybe one of the Popes – I am delighted to know that Dr. Bob would take my call first. But, I think to myself, why do they take up precious time to tell me this? Is it really true? Might they be pre-screening the incoming phone numbers? Dr. Bob can see my name on the caller ID. He knows I am his patient. I half-expect a bored voice to click on the line and say, “Dr. Bob’s office. We know who you are. Please hold” and then click off again. I make a note to check later to see if Dr. Bob spent the morning taking care of Beyonce.

"Please stay on the line because our menu options have recently changed."

Now, I start getting restless. Is this message part of a nefarious plot to force me to sit in my chair for an extended period of time? Perhaps Dr. Bob is actually a front for a terrorist organization and he uses these messages to get targets to remain in one place long enough for an enemy sniper to train a high-powered rifle on the victim. Why else would Dr. Bob try to force me to listen to the entire menu when I heard this exact same message two years ago? What’s he up to? I creep along the wall and carefully close the blinds.

“If you know your party’s extension, you can enter it at any time.”

Why didn’t they say this in the beginning? And why does Dr. Bob call “people” parties? When did “people” and “parties” become interchangeable? Is that proper usage of the term? Are there broader societal implications?

“If this is a medical emergency, please hang up and dial 9-1-1."

I become alarmed. How stupid does Dr. Bob think I am? “Hey, Dr. Bob! I’m bleeding to death here!!! Got any quick advice??? Can you squeeze me in today and sew my arm back on??? Gawd, I hope you are taking these calls in the order they were received!!!” I am really starting to hate Dr. Bob.

“If you have a rotary phone, please stay on the line.”

Rotary phone??? Are they kidding? C’mon, Dr. Bob, who has a rotary phone anymore? Terrorists, perhaps? My kids have never even seen a rotary phone! And what if it’s an emergency? Am I supposed to both hang up AND dial 9-1-1 on my rotary phone while my arm is hanging from its socket? While I'm bleeding to death???

“Otherwise leave a message after the tone and we will get back to you at our earliest convenience...”

You will call me at YOUR earliest convenience?! That’s probably true, but is it wise to TELL ME THAT?! I CAN’T STAND YOU, DOCTOR BOB!!!

Pause – Pause – Pause – Pause – Pause – BEEP

I grip the phone, grit my teeth, and record my message but suspect that the reason for my call has long since healed, ruptured, or metastasized.

I hang up, shaken and exhausted. Tomorrow, I will call Dr. Bob and see if he can help me understand why I am so stressed and no longer have time to get anything accomplished.

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