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You're Wrong About Voicemail

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My mother is untrainable. At least, as far as voicemail is concerned. We'd repeat the same song and dance over and over. Me: Stop leaving me voicemails. Her: I don't understand. This went on for years, until I figured out she was right all along.

You can hear the author of this post read it on WNYC's New Tech City, in a piece that aired today, January 7, 2015.


How you feel about voicemail is largely generational. People who haven't hit 40 don't get why their parents and other olds don't just text or let a missed call speak for itself. In some cases it's an argument of etiquette. One side says voicemail is obnoxious. The other argues it's rude not to leave one. It's actually neither. Voicemail is great. Voicemail is essential.


A little background. My dad died unexpectedly in July. As a single event, a death sets everything into motion in a way that's completely out of control. Once it happens, events keeps tumbling at you in a steady deluge, and you can't slow anything down, and you can't pause to take stock of what's happening or who's saying what or who brought you a casserole or how you ended up with four tubes of waterproof mascara. Nothing stops. In what felt like a timewarp, I somehow found some structure in voicemail.

Right after my dad died, my phone started ringing and it didn't stop for about a month. I could text but I couldn't really talk on the phone. You can only say thank you so many times before you start to feel insincere. But people wanted to talk to me. And people left me voicemails.

I didn't listen to them immediately. But they were there as a de facto comfort when I needed some. Unlike Snapchat, or whatever ephemeral technology we're obsessed with for five minutes, my voicemails didn't disappear after one listen. I mean, you actually have to really want to delete a voicemail to get rid of it, or it'll fester away in your deleted folder forever. They're indelible that way.

At the time, the messages were as much for me as it was for the person leaving the message, too. People don't always know what to say in sensitive situations, death chief among them. But folks will just keep talking when no one's there to prompt them.


People also say things in a voicemail that they won't say in person. It gives you the ability to ramble without response, and for all the times you've listened to an uninterrupted stream of consciousness left in a voicemail, hoping for someone to get to the point, you actually realize it's wonderful. People don't know what to say in sensitive situations, like talking to a friend whose dad recently died. But left to their own devices on a voicemail, they'll find their way to the right words.

This isn't meant to be sad! Defending voicemail isn't just about grief or coping. I'll admit this big life-changing event made me realize voicemail's value to me. But it has a broader worth. Voicemail is a default archive of your life. You would miss it if it were gone!


I have voicemails I've saved for years on my phone. I have a few I loved so much I uploaded to SoundCloud so there's no chance I'll delete them. One time, my roommate called me pretending to be my dog. Saved it. I have a college friend who teaches shop in mid-Missouri who will call me and tell me stories about the weird things his students say and do. Save lots of those. There's also the occasional drunk dial. I love a good drunk dial. If you're not the one doing the dialing, and if it's not a message from an ex you'd rather not hear from (hats off to iOS 8 number-blocking), a drunk voicemail is a beautiful thing. People are great. People are funny. They're even more of both when they've hammered. Two minutes' worth of word vomit someone left on your phone under the influence is a funny thing to wake up to. It's ok to laugh at someone else's shame every once in a while.

Here's another universal truth: Sometimes, it's just good to hear someone's voice. Email is great, texting is fine, but it takes effort to pick up the phone. Typing and talking have an inverse relationship: as it's gotten easier to write your feelings, it's gotten more difficult to speak them. Even if your feelings are just "I was calling to say hello." That means something.


There's also tradition. Not to be sappy, but I can't think about voicemails without bringing the whole thing back to my dad once more. The dude had a goddamn calendar full of people he would call on their birthdays. From what I've learned in the past couple of months, it numbered in the hundreds. If he knew your birthday, he would call you on it and sing happy birthday. He had what I would call a church choir voice. Which is to say, not great, but he would belt it out nonetheless. If you picked up, he'd sing your ear off. If you screened, he'd sing it to your voicemail.

In the past three months, I've had untold numbers of people approach me and tell me they had messages from my dad on their phones singing them happy birthday. Happy birthday to Mark! Happy birthday to Suzanne! Happy birthday to Margaret! Happy birthday to family and friends and to people I don't know from Adam! Shoot, I'd think every time, why didn't I listen to my voicemails more? Until one day, I poked around in my deleted folder and found my happy birthday message from last year, saved. There it was! I hadn't meant to save it, but there it was.


As hard as it is to admit, my mom is right. Voicemail is a good thing. You may not know it now. You may think I'm flat wrong. I get it; voicemail can be annoying. Unnecessary, sometimes. Believe me, I've made all those arguments too. But I also know that you would miss voicemail if it were gone.

Art by Tara Jacoby