Opinion

opinion | Meta Wagner

Voicemail is finally dead! Or, maybe, long live voicemail!

How we communicate has changed over recent years.
REUTERS
How we communicate has changed over recent years.

Coca-Cola recently announced that it offered the employees at its Atlanta headquarters the option of turning off their voicemail. Ninety-four percent opted in with a resounding “heck, yeah.”

The anti-voicemail sentiment reflected, and even surpassed, the current trend. Two-thirds of Americans have stopped listening to voicemail. Millennials, in particular, are convinced that the 20 or so seconds it takes to listen to a voicemail is time better spent inventing the next billion-dollar app or getting marijuana legalized in their home state.

But, let’s not overlook the fact that one-third of Americans still love listening to off-key birthday messages or the instantly recognizable voice of a long-distance friend.

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The point is that each person possesses very strong feelings about when and where and how he or she wants to communicate with others. The problem is, so does everyone else.

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Person A only makes (hands-free) calls from the car. Person B is morally opposed to all forms of social media. Person C only texts, never calls, unless it’s a videocall. Person D has voicemail but never checks it. Person E hates receiving phone calls at night but will email and text and Facebook message and tweet ‘til all hours.

We’ve all become so particular about two-way communication that it’s a miracle anyone ever connects.

But being particular is exactly what corporate America has encouraged in us for decades now, way before the arrival of the iPhone. Think about one of the most enduring odes to pickiness ever, Burger King’s “Have it Your Way” slogan. After a 40-year run, it was finally retired last May when Burger King introduced a new, even more personal slogan, “Be Your Way.”

Next came the 1,001 ways to order coffee. If you’ve ever stood in line at Starbucks behind someone ordering a Venti skinny vanilla latte with an extra shot and the milk steamed to 180 degrees, you know exactly what I mean. And, so, it was inevitable that when the digital communications era arrived, personal choice would rule.

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But, there’s a crucial difference between interpersonal communications and burgers or lattes. You can order a Whopper — hold the pickles, hold the lettuce — and I can order one with the works, and, even though we made different choices, we’ll still eat together in harmony and even split a packet of Tums afterwards.

But if you’re the sort of person who uses car time to make calls, and so am I, but we’re rarely in our cars at the same time, the chance of us actually speaking to each other is pretty small.

Are we each just stubbornly exercising our “right” to do things our way? Is the communications game the ultimate power play? Maybe. But I think there’s something more at stake.

Nonstop communication is clearly one of the factors making us feel so busy and harried and, frankly, exhausted. Even the most thoughtful person is forced to become self-protective and controlling. And the funny thing is, everyone thinks everyone else is the controlling one!

The truth is that communications is one of the few areas in life where one actually has some control. You can’t single-handedly stop global warming or terrorism or the killings of unarmed men or honorable cops, but you can turn off your phone to still your mind. You can’t keep your kids from leaving the nest, but you can reach them on a whim, when you feel that awful pang. You can’t tell your friend, in person, that you’re sorry you hurt her, but you can put it in an email, in just the right words

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So, it’s not always a bad thing to be a little controlling. But, do yourself a favor, and check your voicemail on your birthday. Someone you love might have left you an off-key message.

Meta Wagner teaches creative writing at Emerson College and is working on a book on creativity. Follow her on Twitter @creative_maven.