In a memorable scene from the 1996 comedy “Swingers,” Jon Favreau’s romantically inept protagonist, Mike, deluges the answering machine of a woman he’s just met at a bar with a spate of excruciatingly self-sabotaging messages.
If the movie were remade today, Mike would have to find another outlet for his miscues. The concept of leaving (and checking) voice mail is, to millennials, as obsolete as swing-dancing and playing NHL ’94 on Sega Genesis. That red number on their iPhones announcing how many voice mail messages are waiting? Ignored. The recording? Instantly deleted. Mike’s oral-to-aural disaster? Averted.
A spokeswoman for Vonage reported that voice mail deposits had dropped by 8 percent from October 2013 to April of this year. (Figures were not available by age.) And a 2012 Pew report on the phone habits of children age 12 to 17 confirmed various truths we hold to be self-evident: Teenagers are texting more (sending and receiving a median of 60 a day in 2011 versus 50 in 2009) and calling far less on their cellphones than they used to. Those who make daily landline calls to friends have become nearly extinct: 14 percent as compared with 30 percent in 2009.
While the landline figure is logical, given their declining use in U.S. homes, it is a telling statistic when it comes to millennials’ reluctance to leave voice mail messages. Having grown up in a texting-friendly culture, with unmediated cellphone access to their friends, they have had little formative experience leaving spoken or relayed messages over the phone.
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Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder of the Etiquette School of New York, estimated 30 to 40 percent of her clients are millennials, and her conversation and basic etiquette classes touch on voice mail skills. When her clients do deign to leave messages, she often finds them lacking polish.
“I coach them to be professional,” she said. “Not to say, ‘Hey, this is Bob, call me,’ and then hang up. I tell them to say hello, state their full name and a full message, and ‘I would appreciate a call back, thank you.’”
“It’s kind of awkward to leave voice mails now,” said Chris Paul, 22, a recent graduate of Duquesne University. “The expectation is that we send each other text messages, and if you wanted to talk to someone, you’d answer their calls.”
When he is forced to record his voice, he is a little anxious. “If it’s in a professional setting,” he said. “I’ve worked for a few political campaigns, and we’re not allowed to text. It’s a little nerve-wracking.”
Even millennials who came of age before cellphones were ubiquitous regard voice mail as a source of performance anxiety. Kate Greathead, 31, a writer in New York, didn’t enjoy leaving voice mail messages for friends in college, “but it had to happen, and I would do it,” she said.
Have her messaging abilities atrophied in the age of texting? “Definitely,” she said.
Her preparedness, at least, would please Napier-Fitzpatrick, who advises clients to rehearse important messages.
“Sometimes I write a script out beforehand,” Greathead said. “Most voice mail has an option to review your message. If it doesn’t have that, I don’t always leave one. If it does, I’ll review it before sending it and sometimes do different takes. Though I’ve learned not to trust that function. Once I accidentally recorded two versions of the same voice mail.”
One factor behind the decline of voice mail is that it represents a gesture of vulnerable intimacy among otherwise alienated modes of communication.
Greathead agrees: “It seems more practical to text or email. The only reason you leave a voice mail is so the person can hear the sound of your voice. It almost seems presumptuous, for that reason.”
As she suggested, there’s also the understandable matter of efficiency. A missed-call notification on a cellphone can be its own request for a call back. A “Call me” text will likely be read more quickly than a voice mail message will be heard, and if the matter is urgent, multiple missed calls may declare that most vociferously.
Voice mail greetings, too, have grown increasingly tedious on mobile phones. At the start of the gantlet is the cellphone provider’s slowly read message that “your call has been forwarded to an automated voice-messaging system.”
Then you must wait through either the robotic reading of the phone number or the recipient’s personalized greeting, which also often includes the number (information that seemed superfluous in the landline era, unless it was given in lieu of one’s name, but even more so now, when the phone’s screen already indicates the number).
Finally, just in case, 138 years after Alexander Graham Bell left the first real-time message, the concept still remains completely foreign to you — as Napier-Fitzpatrick suggested it is to some millennials — the person may detail elaborate instructions on how to do so.
(Baby boomers, in my experience, are the most egregious offenders. Conversely, a certain brand of Gen-X slacker is fond of the tersely aloof outgoing announcement, along the lines of Luke Perry’s character’s in “Beverly Hills 90210”: “Hey, this is Dylan, you know the drill.”) Older callers accustomed to answering machines may not mind as much, but after 35 initial seconds of a ringing phone, the modern trial would test even Mr. Rogers’ patience.
And since voice mail is a two-way street, the many millennials who ignore their inboxes only give their contemporaries further reason not to add to them. Time is, again, the main deterrent, but the rarity of voice mail makes some, like Greathead, wary of their messages’ import.
“I get very scared that it’s an emergency,” she said. “Sometimes I ask other people to listen to them for me so they can break the bad news.”
The convention of not leaving voice mail has also facilitated the rise of the “one-ring” wireless scam. In the ruse, a caller from an international pay-per-call phone number that appears to be a domestic area code calls and hangs up after one ring. Curious victims accustomed to a voice-mail-less world call back, only to discover on their phone bills that they have been charged exorbitant per-minute rates.
While anyone could be roped in by the hoax, millennials (who frequently don’t review or pay their own phone bills) may be most susceptible — even those who are the progeny of phone-etiquette specialists.
Napier-Fitzpatrick’s 22-year-old daughter “wouldn’t even connect her own voice mail,” she recalled. “She said, ‘I see a number and I just call them back.’ I told her that’s not how things are done in the working world.”
Nevertheless, at least one other 22-year-old leaves voice mail for her mother (and her boyfriend, but no one else), albeit for less professionally minded reasons. “If I don’t leave her a voice mail, she won’t call me back,” said Joy Kertes, a senior at Wagner College on Staten Island. Why not?
“She’ll think I butt-dialed her,” she said.
Teddy Wayne is the author of the novels “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” and “Kapitoil.”