The Voice-Mail Woman Wastes Our Time

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Jeremy Hobson brings a critical ear to the cell phone automated voice-mail woman — who he says is constantly wasting our time with her talk of "sending a numeric page" and "more options."

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Remember the days when voice mail greetings--or I guess we called them answering machine greetings back then--remember when they sounded like this?

(Soundbite of answering machine greeting)

LEO: Hi. It's Leo. I'm not available. Please leave a message.

(Soundbite of beep)

BRAND: Pretty simple. Well, at some point, the cell phone companies decided we as phone users needed a lot more information and a lot more options. That really bothered DAY TO DAY producer Jeremy Hobson.

JEREMY HOBSON:

If you use a cell phone, you know the drill. After hearing a personal voice mail greeting, the automated woman comes on and tells you what else you can do.

Automated Voice: Your call has been forwarded to an automated voice messaging system.

HOBSON: Let's take this one piece at a time. First of all, is it really necessary to tell me my call has been forwarded to an automated voice messaging system?

Automated Voice: At the tone, please record your message.

HOBSON: And telling me to wait for the tone--I mean, come on.

(Soundbite of tone)

HOBSON: If a person can figure out how to press the buttons on the phone, he probably knows to start leaving his message after the tone.

Automated Voice: To leave a call-back number, press five.

HOBSON: And why would anyone leave a call-back number? Since the early days, all cell phones have had caller ID, so the number will be in your missed calls. Or you could just leave a message with your number in it.

But what about more options?

Automated Voice: When you've finished recording, you may hang up or press one for more options.

HOBSON: What could these options possibly be?

Automated Voice: For delivery options, press four.

(Soundbite of tone)

Automated Voice: To mark urgent, press one. To mark confidential, press two. To mark urgent and confidential, press three. To mark normal, press four.

(Soundbite of tone)

Automated Voice: Message marked normal.

HOBSON: Marked normal? If it's normal, then don't mark it. And while I've been sitting here listening to the voice-bot, I've been using up my precious airtime minutes. Even the standard 20 seconds of information can push voice mail victims into that sometimes costly second minute. But experts say most people don't have to pay overage fees anymore. So while phone companies may have benefited in the past from keeping you on the phone, nobody's benefiting anymore.

Automated Voice: Are you still there?

HOBSON: Yes. And by the way, for those of you who think you can just either press pound or one to get straight to the beep, you're right in some cases, but you can't always do that. Sometimes one means more options, and sometimes pound means, well...

Automated Voice: Incorrect key.

HOBSON: Which means we're spending a lot more time than necessary on the phone. Suppose the average American has to leave four messages a day on cell phone voice mail. That's more than a minute a day listening to the automated voice-bot, more than eight hours a year--a full workday.

Now, it is possible, though not terribly easy, to get rid of all this extra information on most phones. But that will only help the people who call you. As for the people you call, you'll have to convince them to spend a little quality time with the voice mail woman and push a few of her buttons.

Automated Voice: ...disconnect, press star.

(Soundbite of tone)

Automated Voice: Goodbye.

BRAND: And that cell phone rant by DAY TO DAY producer Jeremy Hobson.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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