Reach Out and Avoid Someone

ELLEN GOODMAN

January 07, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- It is 6 o'clock on a Thursday evening and he is about to play telephone tag. This is not, he explains patiently, the old, hopelessly retro telephone tag of the 1970s and '80s.

Way back then, the object was to reach out and touch someone. Two people would push-button back and forth from one office to another until they made contact. The answering machines and secretaries of the world stood between them like hurdles. To the victor went the conversation.

This is the telephone tag of the '90s. You win by reaching out and touching . . . technology. Only the losers end up talking to real live people.

As a demonstration, this gamesplayer par excellence takes his small stack of messages, glances at the clock, and begins returning calls. Everyone on his list has, of course, left for the day.

Four voice mails and two answering machines later, he has responded to questions, left a set of messages and even the time and place of a lunch date. The whole process took less than 15 minutes.

There, he says, with a competitor's look of satisfaction. Can you beat that? I can see the trophy on his telephone: the winner of the 20-call dash.

Of course, he admits, one of the people may call in from a distant phone, listen to the message and respond . . . to his voice mail. So goes the chase, two telephones without a connection; a game of untouch tag.

I don't know the precise etiquette of telephone tag, but this gamesman is absolutely right about its ascendancy. A hundred years ago, the telephone was invented to allow people to talk to each other. Now it's being used to help people avoid talk.

After all the years of annoyance with answering machines and impatience with disembodied technologies, this is the dirty little secret of modern life: A growing number of Americans have come to prefer voice mail to voices.

Have you ever prayed for an answering machine when you called up to break a date? Have you ever deliberately phoned people you knew were out so you could just leave a message? Have you ever RSVPed, apologized, lied, by voice mail? Ever wished you could?

Have you ever -- come on, confess -- turned on the answering machine when you were in and then monitored the calls? Tag. You're it.

The transition from Telephone Tag I to Telephone Tag II, the Sequel, is in sync with the change from the communication era to the information era. Communication after all implied that words went two ways, back and forth. It suggested that there was something important in the dialogue. Communication was a people skill.

Information on the other hand is a sequence of facts to be delivered and received. It's data to be downloaded. I dump information on you; you dump it on me. It's a game you can play by machine or by those other telephone toys of the information era, the FAX and the Modem.

How many people choose to FAX a fact or an invitation simply to avoid communicating. It's as if, finally, we have figured out a way to use the phone to reinvent the letter. With all its distance and none of its grace.

Of course a confirmed Telephone Tag Team Player will tell you that the name of the game is efficiency. In the much vaunted time-crunch of the '90s, it is faster to leave a message on a machine.

You don't have to ask the machine whether it had a nice weekend. Voice mail doesn't want to know why you can't have lunch. Telephone technology doesn't have opinions or feelings. It can't correct you, argue or engage in what we once thought of as social discourse.

So it is that haste has become the new status symbol. In an era when even telephone operators get timed, talking is considered wasteful. The powerful are those who eliminate that messy, time-consuming and unpredictable business liability: people.

Want to be a winner in the Nineties? Take a tip from the Tagmeister. Keep out of touch.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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