The master's voice: He figures a taped message is worse than no message at all

Although I have owned a state-of-the-art telephone answering machine for two or three years, no caller has ever heard its voice.

I have taped several answers, trying to get one I liked, but none was satisfactory.

For one thing, I don't like to call someone and get an answering machine, so I assume that no one likes to call me and get an answering machine.

I sometimes think I'd rather just get a no answer than a taped message:

"Hello. This is Fred. I'm not available to answer the phone right now, but please wait until you hear the tone, then leave your name. . . ."

Of course we have hung up long before we get that far.

There is also implicit in that kind of message a promise to return the call, and I get some calls I'd rather not return. But when you have invited the caller to leave his name and number, and promised to call him back, you have to. It's plain courtesy.

Of course Fred's message is routine. It gets the job done. It's the cute ones that knock me off my trolley. Then there are the sexy ones, mini-seductions that you know are never going to result in any consummation. If you leave your number, and they call you back, they are quite matter-of-fact about it, no sexual innuendoes at all, and they always ask for your wife.

I am also put off by the feeling that the person I've called is in, and is listening to my message, but doesn't want to talk to me. He may call me back when he's good and ready, or not at all. This puts him in a position of power over me that I don't like.

When my older son's answering machine was on the blink recently he borrowed mine for a couple of weeks. That's the only service it's seen. It worked perfectly well for him, and he doesn't understand why I don't use it.

One of the problems is that playing back our message gives us a chance to hear how we sound to others, and it isn't always flattering. On tape I don't sound like Orson Welles or Ronald Colman, or even like Laurence Olivier. I sound more like Donald Duck, or Jack Smith.

Some years ago I had an earlier model answering machine and I tried to use it. At that time we were remodeling our house, and our contractor had his own answering machine. He was never in when I called him, so I would leave a message on his machine. Then he would call back when I wasn't in and leave a message on my machine. I got the eerie feeling that our machines were communicating but we weren't, and it wasn't long after that that I gave the machine to one of my sons and sank back into the 18th Century.

I bought the new one later because I love gadgets and can't resist having the latest thing. But now I have this problem, which, as far as I know, is purely psychological. There is nothing mechanically wrong with the machine. Murphy's Law hasn't had a chance to set in.

Maybe my problem is that I haven't worked out a message that reveals my personality.

I have received a publicity handout from a company named Record a Call, which is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the answering machine, and it reports that many "creative owners" have managed to give their messages a personality that reflects their own.

Others have fun by taping their messages in imitation of such easily recognized voices as those of Ronald Reagan, Walter Cronkite, Cary Grant and so on. I imagine women might go for Katharine Hepburn.

This phenomenon got some of the Record a Call people to thinking about famous persons of the past, and what kind of messages they might have left if they had had answering machines.

For example:

Sigmund Freud: "At the tone, please tell me your name, tell me your phone number, and tell me how you feel about your mother."

Adam: "I can't come to the phone right now. I'm out buying some spare ribs."

George Washington: "I cannot tell a lie. I am in, but I'm not answering the phone."

Michelangelo: "Sorry I can't come to the phone; right now I'm flat on my back."

Moses: "I'd answer my phone but I keep getting these crank calls from some guy named DeMille. He thinks I'd be perfect for the lead in 'The Charlton Heston Story.' "

Captain of the Titanic: "I'd like to talk to you but it's been a long day, and now I want a little something on ice."

Mata Hari: "At the beep, leave a secret."

I've tried thinking of some myself:

Judge Crater: "I'm out, and I don't know where I've gone."

Harold Stassen: "Sorry, I'm out running for President."

Napoleon: "Call me back after Waterloo."

Jimmy Carter: "I think you want Ronald Reagan."

Ronald Reagan: "Nancy and I can't answer the phone right now. They won't let us."

Prince: "If you want to talk to me, you have to ask God."

Michael Jackson: "You probably wanted Prince. You can get him at God's."

Richard Nixon: "At this point in time, I'm out. I want to make that perfectly clear."

Tommy Lasorda: "If this is Steve Howe, forget it."

Mae West: "I thought you'd never call."

Charles Manson: "Hi. I've gone away for a while."

Jack Smith: "Please don't call me when I'm out."

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