Archived Story

Why do some people not answer phones?

Published 9:22am Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

It’s a good thing half of the world answers their cellphones. Because if they didn’t the world’s telecommunications system wouldn’t function.

It seems to me that about half of the planet does not answer their cellphones on a regular basis. Now, I don’t mean to say that sometimes people cannot answer their phones. I realize that folks are in the shower, at church, in a meeting, sleeping or somewhere that answering a phone isn’t practical. But there are plenty of people who, when that cellphone rings, they look at who is calling and let it just go to voicemail. You know you are. We, the answerers, are on to your ploy.

You go check the voicemail, see what the matter was, then decide whether to call back. Pretty sneaky, huh? Frankly, it’s pretty inconvenient for the rest of us, who often need to reach you for pressing things, like, “Do I turn right on this street?” or “Do we need chips for the fundraiser?” or “We have a game tonight. Did I leave my basketball shoes at your house?”

The people who do answer their phones regularly want to know this: Why do you have a cellphone if you don’t answer it?

The idea behind a mobile communications device is that people can be reached anywhere they go. That was the selling point. If you don’t want to answer the thing, you might as well have a land line in your house and have it attached to a voice message machine, like in the 1990s.

But cellphones now do much more than allow you to call people when you are riding on a tractor or standing in the bread aisle. They are smartphones that allow users to surf the web, play games, check email and do much more than talk.

The problem is that we have so many forms of communication that people pick and choose which forms they prefer to interact with other people. That leaves half of the people needing to be able to communicate in many ways, while the other half communicates in only chosen ways.

For instance, young people tend to dislike answering phone calls. They make people text or email them instead. It’s like speaking voice to voice is some freakish curiosity, even though it often accomplishes much more with fewer misunderstandings.

And older people tend to prefer voice calls but shun text messages or communicating through web forums such as Facebook and Twitter messaging.

So if you are a member of Generation X — those of us with one foot in the old technology and one in the new technology — you tend to be both. There comes an age where you talk to your parents with phone calls and to your kids with text messages.

To be sure, I like texting a lot. It’s so convenient and quick. But there are times when you need an answer right away and don’t wish to wait for a texted reply. And there are times you have more to say than a text message can handle. You need to speak, like real people, voice to voice.

Sometimes, just to be a smart-aleck, I inform the people who don’t answer their phones of the problem: “Say, it seems your phone is only working one way. You might get that checked out.”

It does get crazy, though. There are so many means of communication now: telephone, cellphone, voice message, email, text messages, facsimile, instant messaging, websites, Facebook posts, Facebook message, Twitter message, tweets, Skype, LinkedIn, blogs, web forums (and each has messaging), web streaming, social gaming, smoke signals, Morse code, telegraph, postal mail, books, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, cinema, DVD, Blu-ray, Beta, VHS, iPod/iPad, cassette tape, vinyl record and, oh yeah, face to face.

The question, “Did you get my message?” and the statement, “Hey, I sent that to you,” can mean so many things. Receivers of the communication have come to feel like outfielders attempting to catch multiple baseballs on the same play.

And people, including me, at times consume too many at once. They watch a TV show while checking Facebook on their phones and texting back and forth with a friend.

Phew! I like going to the movies — the kind in the theaters. You shut off everything and become engrossed in an artfully crafted plot. It is good for the mind.

And it’s a good thing some of you out there still answer the good old phone when it rings. Despite all the new forms of communication, answering the phone when it rings most of the time seems like the courteous thing to do. I salute you. After all, the people who don’t answer their phones need you when they return calls.
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.