Modern communication – pluses and pitfalls

#427 in a series of true experiences in real estate
May 2003, Hills Newspapers

Several times each week we get voice mail messages we cannot decipher. Anet listens, then I do. We compare notes.

“I think she said Sharine or Lorene, maybe Janine,” I say.

“But what’s the last name?” Anet asks. “Shane, Swain, Shone, Shew? Well, that doesn’t matter if only we knew her number.”

“It sounded like 0199 at the end. She must have been on her cell.”

The next day there’s a new message, same voice, somewhat annoyed. Shurlene-somebody has called, says she hasn’t heard back from us, and sure does wish that we’d call. We still can’t get the whole name, and this time she spurts out her phone number so fast that we miss most of it, but with repeated listenings, we are finally able to understand, then call her.

It’s maddening. We want to respond to those who call us but a surprising number of callers mumble their names and numbers, race through them, or, due to poor reception, their words are partially obliterated.

Remember how odd it was when we first saw people walking along the street talking on a phone? I thought I’d never get used to it, but now I have my own cell phone and don’t know how I’d live without it. In the old days, Anet and I would drive clear across town to look at a house, then back again to our office to call a client to tell him about it. No more. I can call him from wherever I am, and he can call me assuming, of course, that the phone is charged up and that reception is available. Improvements will, no doubt, be forthcoming.

More and more, I notice, that announcements on answering machines and voice mail boxes include the words, “Please speak slowly” and “Leave your number, even if you think I already have it.” These are the equivalent of “Please print clearly” on written forms, and may help. Maybe some callers or those filling out forms, because they are asked to, do slow down and speak or write more clearly.

But probably many don’t, even those whose names (it must be evident to them) are difficult to discern. My name, for instance, Pat Talbert, is hard to hear on the phone. The two t’s, one at the end of Pat and the other at the beginning of Talbert tend to run together and confuse my listener. Unless I know the person, am pretty sure he or she will recognize me, I give my name as Patricia Talbert because it’s so much easier to hear and separate.

Remember when there were no machines to take messages? Not so long ago when we telephoned someone, we either reached him directly or, if our intended was unavailable, we talked to someone else who usually volunteered to take a message. This was a more reliable system. If we weren’t understood, the person on the other end could say, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

Then message machines were invented, actually quite a good invention, very useful. At first, many of us were reluctant to use them. We were shy about having our voices recorded, weren’t sure how long we could talk, maybe distrusted that the message would be received.

And what if we said something we’d regret? Awkwardly stumbled, said something stupid? There would be no way to retrieve the words, no way to cover up our error.

We still run into people who don’t have an answering machine, sometimes clients, usually elderly people who see no use for them. Anet’s mom, for instance, says she’ll talk on the phone when she’s there. If she’s not there, whoever is calling can call back.

But now, we’ve come to rely on these machines and on voice mail, also on email. It’s a tremendous convenience, we’ve come to realize, to be able to communicate at any time of the day or night, to be able to speak or write a message quickly without, at that moment, any need for chit chat, questions or response back.

I particularly resisted using email. I couldn’t imagine how I could fit into my day yet another form of communication. “Do you have email?” people would ask me in the early days, and I’d say, “No, when do you find the time to read and answer email?”

I was assured that email is wonderful, fast, and fun. And when I finally gave it a try, I readily saw that it is all of these. Now we are delighted when our contacts, especially our clients, use email. As thoughts and events occur – at midnight, naked from the shower, in mid-bite – we quickly and easily type a message, often short and meaty, and send it off to be read at our respondent’s convenience.

Not that email will ever take the place of other forms of communication. We still write letters, real ones, that are sometimes faxed but frequently mailed the old-fashioned way through the post office. We still talk on the phone, very often directly – not via a machine – and we certainly rely on face-to-face contact, talking in person.

There’s nothing like it. A lot more interesting and gratifying information is available in actual meetings when we can see, as well as hear, the people we are communicating with.

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