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Essay: Rage Against the Answering Machine

Automated telephone answering systems were supposed to help firms conduct their business more efficiently and to help those calling for information get to the right person faster.

But for Lake Effect essayist Dr. Bruce Campbell, they haven’t lived up to their promise:

I don’t know about you, but my phone calls rarely connect directly to a living person. More often, after two rings, a pre-recorded voice greets me. If I am standing, I sit. If I am sitting, I lean back. If I am leaning back, well, you get the picture.

For example:

“Hello. And thank you for calling Dr. Bob’s office.”

Actually, this phrase is acceptable. It's reassuring to know I reached the correct number. Whenever I visit Dr. Bob, I have a good experience. I really like Dr. Bob and his staff. Having the recording offer thanks for my call is courteous but not necessary. Knowing how kind Dr. Bob is, I find the message charming.

"Our regular business hours are 8:00 to 4:30 Monday through Friday."

This is useful information, but only had I been calling Dr. Bob to find out when there might be someone available to answer the phone. I check my watch. It is 10:00 a.m. Oh, no! Why doesn’t Dr. Bob’s answer? Are they hurt? Is there some sort of hostage crisis? Is everything all right?

"If you are hearing this message during our normal business hours, it just means we can’t get to the phone right now."

Oh, thank goodness.

“If you know your party’s extension, you can enter it at any time.”

Why does Dr. Bob refer to the people who work in his office as “parties?” When did “people” and “parties” become interchangeable? Is that proper usage of the term? Are there broader societal implications at play here?

“Please be assured we will take your call in the order in which it was received.”

This is heartening. An egalitarian approach to the seemingly trivial task of phone triage strikes me as a small moment of justice in an otherwise disordered and embittered world. If someone extremely important called immediately after I did – the President, perhaps, or maybe one of the Popes – I have now been reassured that Dr. Bob will take my call first.

But, I think to myself, why do they consume precious time telling me this? Is it, perhaps, not really true? Might they be pre-screening the incoming phone numbers? Dr. Bob must be able to see my name on the caller ID. He knows I am his patient. I half-expect a bored voice to click on the line and say, “Dr. Bob’s office. We know who you are. Please hold,” and then click off again. I make a note to check the entertainment websites this afternoon to see if Dr. Bob spent the morning caring for Beyonce.

"Please stay on the line because our menu options have recently changed."

Now, I start getting restless. Is this message part of a nefarious plot to force me to sit in one place for an extended period of time? Perhaps Dr. Bob is actually a front for a terrorist organization and he uses these messages to get targets to sit still long enough for enemy snipers to train high-powered rifles on them. Why else would Dr. Bob try to force me to listen to the entire menu when I heard this exact same message two years ago? What’s he up to? I creep along the wall and carefully close the blinds.

“If this is a medical emergency, please hang up and dial 9-1-1."

Now, I am insulted. How stupid does Dr. Bob think I am? “Hey, Dr. Bob! I’m bleeding to death here! Got any quick advice? Can you squeeze me in today and sew my arm back on? I sure hope you are taking these calls in the order they were received!” I am starting to dislike Dr. Bob.

“If you have a rotary phone, please stay on the line.”

Rotary phone? Is he kidding? C’mon, Dr. Bob, who has a rotary phone anymore? Terrorists, perhaps? My kids have never even seen a rotary phone! And what if it’s an emergency? Am I supposed to both hang up and then dial 9-1-1 on my rotary phone while my arm is hanging from its socket? While I'm bleeding to death?

“Otherwise leave a message after the tone and we will get back to you at our earliest convenience...”

You will call me at your earliest convenience?! That’s probably true, but is it wise to tell me that? I can't stand you, Doctor Bob!


I grip the phone, grit my teeth, and record my message. I suspect, though, that the reason for my call has long since healed, ruptured, or metastasized.

I hang up, shaken and exhausted. Tomorrow, I will call Dr. Bob’s office again and see if he can help me understand why I am so stressed and why I no longer have any time to get things done.

Lake Effect essayist Dr. Bruce Campbell is a Head and Neck Cancer Surgeon at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He also blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror. He read his essay Please Stay on the Line.

Bruce Campbell
Bruce Campbell , M.D., was torn between career objectives in college, eventually choosing medicine over a life in radio. He is a Head and Neck Cancer Surgeon at the Medical College of Wisconsin, holding faculty appointments in the Department of Otolaryngology and the Center for Bioethics & Medical Humanities.