by David Sisler

"Thank you for calling the Sisler Family. We are unable to take your call at this time, but if you will leave your name and number and a brief message, we will get back to you as soon as we can."

That telephone answering machine message is as boring as it gets — and it is the one on my machine. Trust me.

I prefer messages with a touch of humor, but I've embarrassed my family enough. Hence the boring one. But almost everyone does the "we-are -not-able- to-take-your-call" shtick. This is much better: "Hello. I'm home right now but cannot find the phone. Please leave a message and I will call you as soon as I find it."

Or, "This is David. We are not... excuse me a moment, please. Put your sister down. PUT YOUR SISTER DOWN! (Sound of window breaking.) Great! What a mess. I'll have to get back to you later."

I remember our first answering machine. We drove four hours to a time- share where an obnoxious, high pressure salesman berated us for not buying his overpriced property. When his language grew salty, I took Bonnie and the kids out of his office, stopped in the waiting room and, in what a retired army Colonel I know calls a "Three Parade Ground Voice," I told the other ninnies sitting there what would happen to them if they were taken to a salesman's office. As three of the seven couples got up to leave, the manager and the salesman came running out, apologized, told me I did, indeed, have a winning number. They gave me a set of baking dishes, six steak knives, a pair of his and her watches, and an answering machine. Fifteen years later, we still have the dishes. The watches never ran, the dishwasher melted the handles on the knives, and the answering machine lasted five days.

I enjoy my answering machine, especially, on Sunday afternoons. Some time after lunch, I lean back in my favorite chair and take a nap. I have a friend who knows that I always take a nap, but three Sunday's out of four, he calls anyway. With the answering machine on and the telephone ringer turned off my nap is undisturbed and I blissfully sleep through another ball game. If it's an emergency, page my daughter, Jennifer. If you don't know her pager number, it is not an emergency.

Answering machines are seldom used for messages any more. Today the "call screening" feature is probably the most important part of any machine. The message plays. The caller speaks. Maybe you pick up. Maybe you let the machine do its thing. You no longer have to tell the kids, "Answer that and if it's Uncle Joe (or The Boss, or The Preacher), tell ‘em I'm not here." It also avoids the embarrassing, "Mr. Boss, Daddy said he's not here." The machine lies for you.

On the other hand, if you are changing the baby's diaper, or adding the last critical ingredients to an important recipe, or trying to take a nap, let the machine get it. If the caller hangs up, you can always dial *69 and get the number — for a small fee. A friend of mine seldom leaves a message, so I figure every hang up is from him. My theory isn't always accurate, but it saves seventy-five cents for each avoided call back.

In this day of the unrelenting intrusion of telemarketers, however, call screening is a great way to avoid many unwanted calls. When they say, "Hello, Mr. Sisler. How are you?" I usually say, "Not interested," and hang up. My Mom argues with them. But when you screen your calls, they hear the recording start and hang up right away (my old cassette-style answering machine recorded for up to 30 minutes and I got one funny call — their machine talking to my machine, but we never did lunch).

Almost anyone who screens calls has heard an annoyed voice say, "I know you're there." To which most of us have gleefully replied, without picking up the receiver, "I know you know. But I'm still not answering."

Etiquette guru Miss Manners says screening "is not rude." You wouldn't leave your front door open, she says, so why is it wise to accept every call that comes in. The caller is rude not to realize that!

Roper Starch Worldwide, a marketing research firm, says two-thirds of American homes have answering machines and half of those use them to screen calls. Are you, like me, wondering how they figured out whether or not people who are alleged to be screening their calls were not home or were actually screening their calls?

Wouldn't it be terrible if we got an answering machine when we prayed? Thank God, He takes every call. No answering machine. No screening. Need Him? He's waiting right now.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 1/24/98

Copyright 1998 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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