Is it just me, or are voice mail systems rapidly evolving into a form of alien intelligence? Remember how leaving a message for someone was easy? There'd be the obligatory hapless greeting*, then a quick beep, and then the floor was all yours.
Now there are about twenty minutes of instructions before you actually get to the beep. Do you want to leave a call-back number? Do you want to send a fax? Do you want to initiate divorce proceedings? Would you like to launch a full-scale nuclear strike against whatever middle eastern country the Bush administration has decided to blame for terrorist attacks today? Just press 9 followed by the number pi to six decimal places followed by the pound sign.
And all the while you're standing there, all keyed-up, waiting for the beep. It's like listening to a Wagner aria - you keep thinking, now it's over; no; now; no; this has to be it; NO; oh, come on already! You're kicking yourself for not going to the bathroom before you started; you're wondering what the neighbours will say when they force open the door and find you lying there, starved to death, the phone in your hand still going "to leave a really angry message, then think better of it, then decide what the hell, please press 974 followed by the pound sign".
Oh, and of course, just about the time you begin to relax and tune out this irritating voice droning on in your ear, the beep takes you by surprise. And it's not even a proper beep anymore, more like a 'be'. So that you only realise that the instructions are over when the silence has gone on for about half a minute. Then you panic. You realise you're supposed to have been talking all this time. You end up spluttering like a bumbling halfwit. Next thing you know you've left a message that goes: "(Looooong Pause) o. um. err... hi there! it's me. I mean it's Falstaff. Listen, I just called to say that err.. that is I wan". That's where you get cut off. So much for sounding suave. I wonder if Bogart ever left voice mail.
Who designs this stuff, anyway? Presumably the same idiots who, back in school, would countdown to a race going "Ready, 1, 2, 2 and half, 2 and three quarters, 2.9, 2.95....". In the old days they would grow up to be the long-winded introductory speakers who would spend 45 minutes introducing the evening's main dignitary, after they'd told you that he / she needed no introduction. Now they have a new calling (forgive the pun!).
And why do all voice mail services have to have the same irritating female voice? I mean, look, it's not like I have anything particularly intelligent to talk to my friends about. I'd be quite happy to sit around listening to a hearty male voice from the answering service. Maybe we could swap a few jokes, go down to the bar and get a drink. Instead I always end up being given instructions by someone who sounds uncannily like my ninth grade geography teacher. I have nightmares about not being able to tell a mesa from a plateau or a cove from a bay.
And then, of course, there's the performance anxiety. I mean here I was, in all my naivete, thinking, "Oh, he's not in - no big deal, I'll just leave him a message". But apparently it IS a big deal. Someone has spent more time thinking through this seemingly simple task than NASA spent planning the Discovery launch (admittedly that's not a high bar, but still). It IS rocket science. I can't just say "Hey, it's Falstaff, call me back". Not after they've gone to all this effort. It would be an anti-climax. I need something grander, more significant. Like the Gettysburg address. What would Zarathustra have sprach? What do I mean when I say I called? Who is this me person anyway?
Or I'll start feeling guilty. I imagine standing in front of the board of AT&T as they shake their heads at me and say "You made us go to all that trouble just because you wanted to chat?". I feel like I have to make up some reason for calling. Something better than "just wanted to see how you were doing". How about "I'm standing on the window ledge of the 42nd floor and I just wanted to let you know that all existence is one big fish before I jump to my certain death". Nice. Urgency, pathos, a touch of oriental mystique. Or how about "Will you marry me?". That sounds about important enough.
Oh, and while we're on the subject, why does every single person I know promise that they'll call back "as soon as they can"? Do they really expect me to believe this? Isn't it more likely that they'll stop for coffee first? Maybe grab a shower or watch Desperate Housewives or something? And what am I supposed to do if they don't call me back as soon as possible. Call the voice mail police? "All right, buddy, it's all over. We saw you. You spent two extra minutes checking out that blonde over by the bar when you could have been calling Falstaff. It's a fair bust**. We've got it all on tape. You'd better come along quietly".
For that matter, do I really want to be called back as soon as possible? Wouldn't I rather you'd had time to relax? I imagine you crawling out of your wrecked car, blood running from the gash where your head hit the windshield, dragging your broken left leg behind you, pulling out your cell phone to call me because you can and you promised. Is what I wanted to talk about really that important?
Personally, I don't even claim that I'll call people back. Why make rash promises? And what's all this stuff about not being able to take the call. Maybe I can and just don't want to. So I just say: "Hi, this is Falstaff. I'm not taking your call right now, so leave me a message." No false hope there. I might call you back. I might not. Couldn't say for sure.
* Have you ever noticed how your message greeting never sounds as cool as those you hear on TV, no matter how hard you try? I mean all the people on TV - even those who can't act - manage to sound cool and relaxed on their voice mail greetings, while you invariably sound like you've just been chased for miles cross-country by a demented serial killer and in your panic ended up recording a new message greeting instead of calling 911
**Yes, yes, I meant that pun too.