Voice mail? That's so last century

Surekha Sydney, 27, said she receives one voice mail for every 10 to 15 texts. It's from "strangers or my parents," she said.
Surekha Sydney, 27, said she receives one voice mail for every 10 to 15 texts. It's from "strangers or my parents," she said.
Posted: April 22, 2011

Are voice mails obsolete? Does anyone even listen to them anymore? With so many easier ways to communicate, leaving a voice mail may be like putting a message in a bottle. Someone might pick it up - eventually.

Ask any young person. A few days ago at the Trader Joe's grocery in Center City, Surekha Sydney, 27, estimated that she received one voice mail for every 10 or 15 text messages.

"The only people that leave me voice mails are strangers and my parents," she said.

A couple of aisles over, Joe Cotsas, a sophomore at Drexel University, said he tells everyone he knows not to leave him voice mails. If he didn't have to worry about employers calling, he said, probably wouldn't have bothered to record a personal greeting. His classmate Justin Deckert concurred. "I think voice mails are actually kind of a hassle," he said.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project last fall reported that teens were texting five times more often per day than adults. And Nielsen Co. said teens send an average of six texts every hour they're awake. Texting overall jumped 31 percent in 2010, according to CTIA - The Wireless Association.

This may be why an informal survey of 57 people by The Inquirer found a clear generation gap when it comes to voice mail.

More than half of the 35 respondents younger than 35 said they were in no rush to check their voice mail, listening to it only every few hours or days.

Seventy-six percent of those younger than 35 said they favored texts or e-mails, while those older than 55 said they preferred phone calls and voice mail.

"I hate checking voice mails," said one young participant. "Once I accidentally got fired because I missed a voice mail from my boss telling me to come in - got it a week later."

Checking voice mails often requires a separate phone call, which can be a deterrent. Why waste phone plan minutes if you can just return the missed call? IPhones solve the problem by archiving messages so that they can be played back with one touch, but many young people still don't see the point.

Verizon Wireless spokesman Bob Varettoni said his company does not disclose statistics regarding voice-mail usage but noted that text usage had skyrocketed over the last few years, from 9.6 billion texts sent or received by Verizon Wireless customers in the United States during the first quarter of 2006 to 180 billion texts sent in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Parents text now, too, if only to keep in touch with their children.

At 30th Street Station, Connie Keares, 49, said she had learned to text so she could reach her 17-year-old son, Peter, who sat beside her smiling guiltily.

"If she leaves me a voice mail, sometimes I won't check it for another few days," he admitted.

Texting may be efficient, but it doesn't account for nuance. Keares, for example, often is told that her text messages come across as "really blunt" or "rude" because of their terseness.

Grace Garrity, Keares' niece, often fights with her long-distance boyfriend over the tone of his messages. "On text message and on Facebook chat, he comes across really, really cold, and, like, distant and kind of mean," she said, adding that "he doesn't use emoticons because he thinks they're stupid."

Once upon a time, facial expressions and voice inflections could convey congeniality, but now people rely on smiley faces and exclamation points. Consider how these two notes come across:

The meeting is at 2. Please be on time.

Or: The meeting is at 2. Please be on time :).

One seems imperious, the other good-natured.

Other tensions can arise. For instance, smartphone users send off rapid-fire e-mails and expect prompt responses in kind. But not everyone has a smartphone.

As tedious as it may seem to some, the safest approach is to ask people how they want to be reached.

Those who are still trying to figure out how to work their cell phones find this all overwhelming.

"I just mailed four letters today, handwritten," said Mina Smith-Segal, 68, a Center City artist. "The lady at the post office said young people don't even know how to address envelopes." In a recent news report, U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan said deliveries by the post office had declined by 43 billion pieces in the last five years.

Back at 30th Street Station, Barbara "Babbs" Pratt waxed nostalgic about when you could go to the corner store and put a quarter into a pay phone if you wanted to call somebody.

"Years ago, when you would see people walking around and talking to themselves, you would think they were crazy," she said. "Now, they're on the phone."

Contact staff writer Daniella Wexler at 215-854-5626 or dwexler@phillynews.com.


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