For Your Ears Only*

These days, there are a lot of people (and yes, I’m occasionally one of them) denouncing the omnipresence of cell phones. They point out that in the last 20 years, cell phones have gone from exotic rarities to bodily appendages we cannot live without; that people are increasingly unaware of what is going on around them, even while walking or driving, because they are glued to their phones; and that kids today rely on being able to look up everything they need to know on their smart phones and as a result are maybe not so smart. The biggest concern people seem to have is about how much our ever-expanding connectedness—via cell phone—to the vast universe of online social media is impinging on our privacy.

However, there is one function of cell phones that actually affords us more privacy, not less: voicemail.
This may seem like a minor aspect of modern communication technology. But just think back (if you are old enough) to what could, and often did, happen in the old days of home telephone answering machines: “Hello, Cheryl? Hey, it’s me. Are you there?…Cheryl?…Are you screening?…OK, well, call me back when you get home. You’re not going to believe what happened to me while I was on this date tonight. The guy actually unbuckled his belt right at the table in the restaurant, because he said he had eaten too much. I remember you told me sometimes Bobby used to do that with you, but…Oh…Uh…(embarrassed cough)…I…God. I totally forgot Bobby moved in with you. Sorry. Hi, Bobby—if you’re hearing this, which I hope you aren’t. (Deep breath) Not that there’s anything wrong with you hearing this, actually I thought the guy was cute, very down-to-earth. I really loved the whole belt thing…Um…Anyway, Cheryl, call me. It’s Sue.”

Before the days of cell phones, you never knew exactly who would hear your voice message—sometimes even while you were in the act of leaving it. People’s machines were often set with the volume turned up for screening purposes and so, for instance, your overly emotional message about being afflicted with perimenopausal insomnia might, unbeknownst to you, be overheard by your friend’s 10 dinner guests while they ate dessert.

Even now, when calling someone’s land line, we have to remember that someone else, such as the person’s spouse or child, might hear our voice message. It’s not always easy, in New York City, to keep track of who is in a particular household; you never know how many roommates or sleepover guests there could be. Even if the person you are calling has an off-site service (where he retrieves his messages from the phone company’s system) you still can’t be sure who might hear your message. It could be a shared service. And when calling the home of friends who are a couple, even though you may want to leave the message for only one of them, it can be considered rude to completely exclude the other person who lives there. All of these potential answering machine faux pas disappeared with the advent of cell phone voicemail.

Of course, the truth is that voicemail, even cell phone voicemail, is becoming extinct. All forms of communication technology are replaced by newer forms sooner or later. Voicemail is already considered by younger people to be as quaint and old-fashioned as white gloves at tea. Most people nowadays just text. But while texting is private too (assuming no one is looking over your shoulder), it does not have the emotional import of voicemail. This past summer during Hurricane Irene, I was stuck in Rehoboth Beach with my 85-year-old parents, who adamantly refused to evacuate, even though there was a mandatory evacuation order in effect. I thanked god for my cell phone. Not because I could use it to call for help or because I could check Facebook and Twitter for the minute-by-minute news, but because without my cell phone voicemail, my friends would not have been able to leave me completely private voice messages like, “Jeanne, just put your parents in the car, tell them you are going to go get ice cream and drive like hell outta there!”

And when my parents asked what phone messages I was getting, I just smiled and said, “Oh, nothing important…Hey, I don’t suppose you guys feel like getting ice cream?”

*Published in The West Side Spirit September 21, 2011

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