A couple of years ago I was invited to lecture in the US. To arrange for a work visa, I rang the US embassy in London. Thus began my first relationship with voice-mail.
Within a couple of rings I was whisked into the embassy’s “automated attendant and information system.” Somewhat bossily, a female voice told me to “listen carefully to the following options.” Before I knew it, I was “dialoguing” with an automated receptionist. I was eventually told to ring another number, and soon I was “dialoguing” with yet another automated receptionist.
This time, after the usual introductions and instructions, a cheery male voice announced that the call was costing me 39 pence per minute. The expense didn’t mean better service. Rather, the new call kept presenting me with more options. None seemed to match what I thought I wanted. I was starting to get very angry.
Worse was to come. After a heroic trek through options and instructions, I posted my passport to the address given. This was a mistake. Weeks and weeks later-lectures prepared, bags nearly packed-there was still no sign of my passport. Post-modernity had let me down. I needed something simple-to talk to one (real) person who might release my impounded document. But instead I was endlessly directed through one set of options after another. Void after void. It gradually dawned on me that the US embassy in London was a mere fa?ade for endless rows of automated receptionists-voice-mail gone crazy.
Diplomats, I thought, should reflect on what voice-mail is doing to the “special relationship.” The automated barricade may be serving US immigration policy, but my own feelings of warmth towards the US were cooling.
I eventually obtained my visa after a contact gave me the embassy’s fax number. I deluged their London offices with faxes and threats.
Now, back in Oxford, I have my own voice-mail. Like other colleagues, I joined Oxford’s pilot voice-mail system in the hope that the new technology would bring quiet and tranquillity to my office. I imagined myself sitting, gazing out across the quadrangle, happily pondering the state of international relations, interrupted only by the rustling of essays being pushed under my door. But I was wrong.
As with the advent of most new technologies-from subway trains to cellular telephones-voice-mail has already become regulated by that most telling of social institutions: etiquette.
Thus, under the prominent heading “voice-mail etiquette,”…