If someone accidentally dials Jack McCullough because, say, a cellphone has been bumped and dialled in a pocket or purse, the chief financial officer typically contends with an epic voice-mail recording of the unwitting caller’s conversations.
The messages aren’t gripping: “You get an insight into nothing,” he says.
But accidental dialling can have some interpersonal fallout. After McCullough once argued with a top salesman, the salesman then inadvertently conferenced McCullough into a call in which he was labelled with some uncharitable epithets. Awkward.
And there was the time McCullough accidentally left a message for that same salesman when he meant to complain about him to someone else. Panicked, McCullough asked a technician to reset the salesman’s voice-mail password so he could log in and delete the message himself. “All it takes is one really stupid accidental call to really get you into trouble,” he says.
It’s all part of the cautionary tales of communications technologies, their overabundance of buttons and the side effects of one-touch convenience. Hopefully, all you’ve recorded is a low-drama soundtrack of your walking and breathing. In that case, you’d only get a little attitude: What does my wife’s handbag want with me now?
But at their worst, accidental phone calls or emails are snitches, bringing along the prying ears of your entire address book. They invite undetected eavesdropping. “There’s a sense that because you didn’t initiate it, it’s OK (to listen),” says Basil Karampelas, a finance director.
Les Hyman, a retired professor who has gotten all kinds of unintentional calls, adds it’s another “ghost in the machine getting a good laugh at our expense”.
The FCC has had to warn the public that accidental calls are problematic for 911 operators. To check for real problems, operators have to “sit there listening to someone driving down the road or shopping”, says a director for an emergency-number association.
Some have coined a verb meaning to delete a lengthy, unwanted message—to “33-7” the message, signifying the digits often used to fast-forward through a message and delete it.
Verizon Wireless’ spokesman, Tom Pica, once inadvertently left his boss a 10-minute voice mail of Pica giving his cab driver directions to his hotel. He was in Greece at the time; his boss was in Philadelphia. “It was 11 in the morning for me, so it was about 5am his time,” he recalls. His former boss left his own voice mail: “Dude, learn to use the key guard!”
Candy-bar style phones, with their keypads exposed, historically have been the culprits. Manufacturers have taken measures to prevent accidental calls. New phones, for example, no longer dial 911 after holding down one digit and often include automatic keypad-lock functions that require the push of a button to unlock.
But that doesn’t mean newer technologies don’t rat you out. Cosmetic surgeon Robert Kotler was using his Bluetooth headset a few months ago to talk to his daughter while driving. His headset redialled her when he was later talking to his wife, who was expressing some parental dissatisfaction. Now, Kotler leaves his Bluetooth headset caged in the car. Says Kotler, with an evident sense of luck: “I only had good things to say about her.”
Communications consultant Tim O’Brien and his wife get his father-in-law’s accidental calls and 15-minute voice mails. They tend to happen when he’s driving (and humming) or walking his Pomeranian mix, Ginger, (“Good dog!”). The phone is supposed to be for emergency purposes only. “He gets more use out of it speed dialling by accident than he does by actually using it,” says O’Brien.
Even the best marriages suffer communications breakdowns from accidental calls. “Why did you call?” is the first question, followed by a did-not/did-too exchange. For Jerry Butler, a chief financial officer whose wife’s purse used to call him all the time, a phantom call “inevitably leads to a conversation about why she had forgotten what she called about”, he says.
People seem to be getting used to accidental contact. Steve Collins, an account director, has a so-called smart phone that recently sent a few hundred colleagues an email of gibberish. He expected to be inundated with queries and complaints. Didn’t happen. Only three or four people, he says, asked what “Zxame Upai” meant.
(Write to WSJ@livemint.com)