After the third ring the machine picks up, "You know what to do", the voice says which is then followed by the usual beep. Of course you know what to do. We all know the routine. We can all recall the countless voices that we have heard playing variations of the essentially same message over and over again. It is almost maddening, if not insulting, that people feel they need to remind us of how to perform what has become a daily ritual in American society. And yet they persist.
They persist because it is not considered condescending to program your answering machine to rattle off instructions to callers asking them to leave a message. Rather it is expected, it is a norm in our society and to not do so would most likely leave callers confused, bewildered, and driven to hang up if they were met with only a blaring beep in their ears.
Although the answering machine offers people a chance to leave all different kinds of messages in a variety of ways, the whole practice has been mainstreamed to such an extent that we can usually predict the contents of the message after the we hear the first few words. This is because the social norms dictating what is said on the answering machine are just as regulatory as the ones that assure that, as Americans, we have one in the first place.
The fact that you don't know who is going to hear the message is the factor that is most responsible for determining what you do and don't say on an outgoing message. In one day your grandmother, employer, lover, and a "wrong number" could call. While your lover might delight in you leaving a steamy message on your machine the other three callers would most likely not care to hear about the intimacies of your relationship. This is where the rule of communicative competence comes into play. Communicative competence refers to, "the knowledge of what is and what is not appropriate to say in any specific cultural context,"(Salzman 193). There is no doubt that you know what to talk to your grandmother, employer, and lover about, the uncertainty lies in which one is going to call you that day to leave a message on your machine. Perhaps it is at the expense of those who found themselves communicatively incompetent when answering machines first became popular that Life's Little Handbook published as one of its top 100 rules to "Resist the urge to leave a clever message on your answering machine". From this arose the collective understanding of what is appropriate to communicate to others through your answering machine; a message thirty seconds or less in length with a greeting, request, and closure.
For some the greeting portion of the message mirrors the way one would answer the phone with a simple "Hi" or "Hello". However many omit this salutation and simply inform you who you have reached. There are many different ways to do this: ÃÂÃÂ· "You have reached the Smith residence"ÃÂ¦" ÃÂÃÂ· "You have reached 341-9359"ÃÂ¦" ÃÂÃÂ· "This is Kate"ÃÂ¦" ÃÂÃÂ· "You have reached John McClain's voice mailbox" Many people answer the phone saying, "Hello, Smith residence" or "Hello, Kate speaking", if someone answered the phone with "Hello, 341-9359" the person would probably give off the impression of being socially inept. Giving a number instead of a name affords the person a sense of anonymity that is also enjoyed by the caller so that from the beginning the caller and the receiver are on equal ground in the communication. This linguistic phenomenon is an example of how technology changes our ways of communicating to the extent that our identity or self perception is affected to some degree.
The greeting then leads into the key phrase of the decade "please leave a message after the beep".
This request is essentially the crux of all messages and the basis for the invention of the answering machine itself. People want to know who called. They don't need a machine to inform callers that they aren't home, that observation is made easily enough when the phone goes unanswered. The request to have the caller leave a message often precedes an explanation that the person is not home, is busy, or unable to answer the phone. Sometimes people even apologize for their inability to answer the phone. While some may request only a message others want your name, number, the time you called, or some combination of the three. This is usually not meant literally. Every time your mother calls she will probably not leave her number. Your spouse will expect you to recognize their voice on the machine and will not leave his or her name. There exists an understanding that all pertinent information needed to have the person understand who called and why should be left after the beep and that mutual understanding is confirmed with the phrase "please leave a message".
Interestingly enough few people end their outgoing message with "bye" as one does at the end of a telephone conversation. This is probably because a conversation is obviously not taking place is the sense of traditional discourse but a communicative exchange is taking place be "bye" that marks the end of conversation. Ending the message with "thank you" is extremely common. The question is what are they thanking you for? Are they thanking you for calling them at all? Are they thanking you for not hanging up in disgust and frustration at having to listen to your stupid machine again instead of reaching you? The answer maybe a little of both but maybe the reason for them thanking you is the same reason that the people don't say "bye" at the end of the message. They are thanking you for participating in a type of bargaining or trading when they say "If you leave a message I'll call you back". The caller is being thanked for cooperating by leaving a message. This thank you is usually followed by a promise to return the call. Although many people do include in the closing of their message a "God bless you" or "Have a nice day" these are about as common as in any other form of communication. Instead the promise to "return your call" often followed by "thank you" tends to be the typical closing.
In our society one continually wonders how we have allowed ourselves to be degraded to such pointless conversations.