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Voicemail blues

Voicemail blues
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First Published: Tue, Nov 15 2011. 10 02 PM IST

Leave a message: Many Indians hang up on reaching voicemail.
Leave a message: Many Indians hang up on reaching voicemail.
Updated: Tue, Nov 15 2011. 10 02 PM IST
Our landline phone stopped working last week, so I asked a friend where I could buy a new instrument and which brand would he recommend. He was genuinely surprised. “You mean you still use a landline phone? I don’t believe this,” he said.
Leave a message: Many Indians hang up on reaching voicemail.
We have an eight-year-old Panasonic cordless phone at home, and it’s our central communications hub: We use it to call the grocery store and the chemist, the plumber or the electrician, and to order food from our neighbourhood takeaways. It’s simpler to give them just one landline number instead of cell numbers of the whole household. We often get calls on that landline from family and friends. Maybe it’s a hangover from the days when the entire family shared a single line.
Increasingly, the landline phone is used by our domestic help to receive or make calls. “Why don’t you give them cellphones instead of buying a new landline phone,” asked my friend. We have, but whenever we are out and need to contact them at home, we always call them on the landline; never on their cellphones. Perhaps we do it out of habit.
The moment we walk into the house the first question we ask them is, “Did anyone call?” The phone has a built-in digital answering machine but we don’t switch it on because there’s always someone to take the message when we are out. Also, I have noticed that most callers don’t leave a voice message; they just hang up when they are asked to leave a message. Is it because they feel self-conscious? Not used to it?
I must confess my first encounter with an answering machine was quite embarrassing. It was in the early 1980s, long before cellphones arrived. I was in New York City and calling a friend from a pay phone. The recorded voice at the other end said, “Please leave a message…” and I muttered, nervously, “Please tell her I (I gave my name) called.” In retrospect it sounded rather stupid, and I’m sure she must have had a good laugh when she heard my message.
For reasons I do not know, many Indians don’t like to leave voice messages. Even on my cellphone I often find that people don’t say anything when they reach my voicemail. They hang up quietly.
Most people I know do not even subscribe to the voicemail service on their cellphones. I must be the only person in my circle of friends with an active voicemail call divert, in case I am busy or cannot be reached. I can understand why they don’t subscribe: It’s tedious to retrieve a voice message. You first read the text alert that informs you that you have a new message, then you dial the voicemail number, listen to the welcome spiel (I don’t know why they can’t trim it), keep a paper and a pen handy to note down the number of the caller (unless you already have their number saved in your contacts), delete the message, go on to the next, and so on. You cannot jump to the third message without listening to the first and the second.
In comparison, it’s simpler to access and respond to a text message (it’s also less intrusive) or a missed call. So I can see why people do not subscribe to a voicemail service, but that doesn’t explain why many people are reluctant to leave a voice message, why they suddenly disconnect the line.
In the US, I believe many people do not even check their voicemails; they rely on SMS and direct tweets. And an Indian cellphone company I called told me that they are no longer providing voicemail services to new subscribers; they are only servicing existing customers.
Figures released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India show that as on 31 August, the total number of telephone subscribers in India was 900 million—34 million landline subscribers and 865 million cellphone users. Clearly, the home telephone is becoming an anachronistic instrument. But is voicemail, too, on its way to becoming obsolete?
Personally, I’m hanging on to both—my landline phone because I still find it useful, and the voicemail just in case someone wants to leave a message.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at thesmartlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Nov 15 2011. 10 02 PM IST