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Someone please answer the phone

First we discovered the answering machine. What a breather. Teenagers and others could actually leave their homes without worrying they’d miss a potential Saturday night date. We then graduated to voice mail, which allowed longer messages and private access. Now someone has invented an automated answering service where a human voice directs the callers to their final destination with a series of questions, prompting specific answers. I had my first experience with one of those new answering services the other day.I needed to cancel an ongoing charge on my credit card, so I called the number listed on the invoice. The company I called has this latest, new-fangled answering system, and a male voice on the other end of the line identified the company and started asking questions. I quickly (sort of) determined the person wasn’t live or talking to me in real time. His first question addressed the location of my account, and he gave me a multiple-choice option to answer. I felt silly talking to a “voice” but I thought my answer “United States” was easy. However, that wasn’t good enough for the voice. He responded, “Say yes if you meant to say the United States.”My patience is dwindling. Between clenched teeth, I emphatically say, “YES.” But it went downhill from there. The voice said, “Sorry, I didn’t hear you.” I stayed on track despite my desire to throw the phone across the room. I answered with another yes, and the voice said, “Sorry, I didn’t get that.” (The company must use a couple of different scripts.) WHAT DOES HE WANT? We are now going on 15 minutes, and I haven’t gotten past the first question. You can imagine my heart rate when my new voice buddy finally said, “Please start over.”However, I found a way to outsmart the voice and secure a live person. After the voice told me to start over, I responded with restrained fervor, “This phone system is totally absurd.” My new friend, the voice, without hesitation, said, “I’ll transfer you to a customer service agent right away.” Ha!Once I got to that live person, I spoke plainly about my opinion of the company’s new phone answering system. I still don’t understand how it’s done, and I don’t care. I don’t like it.I am from an era when technological convenience meant a long phone cord that reached into my bedroom, preventing my parents from hearing my conversation. I am just now adapting to the voice-mail answering systems where you listen for days (exaggeration) before they tell you which number to key in for the right person or department. What bothers me about it all – recorded automation, robot voices and even e-mail – is that I fear we are disconnecting from our fellow humans, tossing aside polite conversation and creative expression to save money or avoid confrontation.Take e-mail, for example. As a writer and editor, I proofread my e-mails – personal and professional – for grammar and then I polish everything I write. Do my friends care if I misspell a word? (Actually, they do. They love to catch my mistakes simply because of my profession.) In addition, e-mail allows us to edit, cut and scrutinize our messages. What kind of spontaneity in conversation does that allow?Of course, human-to-human verbal conversation is oftentimes flawed – just ask any husband or wife, boss or employee. Just ask a customer service representative who intercepts complaints. Emotions are difficult to hide when we are conversing face to face. And it’s more difficult to disconnect from our in-the-moment feelings of anger, joy or grief when we are directly talking to someone.Automation not only disconnects us from other humans but it also allows us to ignore our true message or real feelings. We can rewrite our messages a thousand times via voice mail or e-mail. What about the things we learn through engaged conversation with strangers? I always enjoyed calling an out-of-state company, and, when the receptionist discovered I lived in Colorado, she often asked, “How’s the weather out there?” or “Got much snow this winter?”Automation might be more cost effective than paying salaries and benefits, but what have we lost? And what happened to all those phone receptionists?I miss the person on the other end who says, “How can I help you today?” I miss talking back, too (to a real human). I guess we have to work harder these days to maintain our relationships. Amidst cell phones, the Internet, ghost voices, etc., we must find the time and energy to stay intimately connected to people – beyond our immediate friends and family. It’s how we grow.Anyway, it’s the 21st century and I need to accept that the energizer bunny is running full speed ahead. However, in my lifetime, if I ever walk up to a retail counter and hear a voice from above saying “Please tell me what you are purchasing today,” I’ll be disconnecting, too – packing up and heading toward an electricity-free island. Are we there yet?E-mail your comments to .

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