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February 8, 2016
Does anyone answer the phone any more?
Steve Leone, editor of the Concord Monitor—the second largest newspaper in New
Hampshire—makes me long for the good old days of old-fashioned communications.
He actually, personally, answers his own phone.
I know this because when I called him I actually got right through, despite the media’s
frenetic immersion in the week before the state’s presidential primary.
“You answer your own phone?” I asked him incredulously, saying to myself, no
voicemail, no screening secretary? “Yes,” he said calmly, “I pick up my phone right
away.” The result: from our conversation, he suggested that I write an op-ed. In 24
hours it was in the newspaper and online.
My larger point is that with the most advanced, communications systems in history at
our disposal, it keeps getting harder to get through to people for a contemporaneous
two-way exchange. I know people in the media, in the civic/academic communities and
even many among my own circle of friends, who do not answer their phones,
irregularly check their voice mail, and barricade their emails with filters and spam-
detection software. Some now advise text-messaging, which hardly can compare with
the two-way telephone conversations of past decades.
Over fifteen years ago, the Wall Street Journal noted a survey that concluded it took
an average of six calls for people at work to reach their party. I’ve experienced calling
reporters and going through three tiers of press one, press two, press three. One
wonders how they get fast scoops these days.
And don’t talk about the airlines, the banks and almost any major business these
days. Even Southwest Airlines has gone to voicemail, which for so long sustained the
old ‘three rings and a human answers’ practice.
Sure, everybody is overloaded with messages, but is the volume slowing the process
of getting things moving or done? Also, so cheap is high-velocity, massive
communication these days (no fretting about long-distance calls), that people are
wont to make far more calls for far less purpose—i.e., lots of low-level trivia and
After a while one has a mental list of people so hard to reach personally that attempts
to contact them are not even made. We are all callers and callees; guess who’s got
the power these days, other than venomous bill collectors who can damage your
credit score if you don’t accede to their incessant demands?
I sometimes try sending a message by postal letter. “Letters,” people tell me when I
finally get through to them, “who looks at the mail anymore?”
There are people in public life who are so committed to running away from the
tsunami of calls and messages that when you do finally get their very-personal cell
number, and they manage to answer, retort—“how’d you get my number?!”
All this is to point out that as there emerge more communications technologies, more
apps, more defenses by callees against callers, the irritation level, and the time and
productivity losses will continue to mount. I’ve yet to see any estimates about how
much time is lost in the business world by people, including consumers, trying and
trying again to get through to other people they’re trying to do business with, but it’s
got to be billions of hours a year.
We all know many people who experience and complain about the difficulty of getting
through. But no one seems to know any way out from the present overloads.
However, also being a callee every day, there is that consolation of knowing how
many ways you can keep “them” from getting through to you.
At firstname.lastname@example.org, we’ll look at any of your suggestions.