Link to Profile Semperoper, Dresden Sieg (auf dem Siegesäule), Berlin Brandenburg Tor, Berlin Skyline, Frankfurt am Main

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Leave a Message after the Tone

Flying along roughly at 34,000 feet as I type this somewhere south of Iceland. Very crowded flight … I will undoubtedly be sick after this one, as every cough of my neighbor is landing in my face as he deflects them with his hands. Oh well.

I sank back into the abyss of taxes at the beginning of last week, and then, seeing light at the end of the tunnel on Friday morning, went out for the big schnitzel and a little shopping. And when I returned home I learned that the light was an oncoming train. Two messages on the voice mail …. One from my Sister in Law with an ominous “Please call me, I need to tell you something.” Believe me, this is not the way I want bad news broken to me. The first thought to cross my mind is, "Omigod, what happened to my Brother?"

My sister was more to the point in the next voice mail left 14 minutes later, telling me that our father had passed away. Still not the best of news to receive, but at least I now knew that my niece and nephew were not orphaned.

At least my family uses voice mail. Most of my German friends and family won’t think of it. I practically beg the Partnerin to turn on her answering machine so her phone won’t ring 8 or 12 times during the day, but she doesn’t want the pressure of dealing with a message if one is left. She does have an obsessive friend who does leave lengthy messages about her not-so-happy housewife day, so I can empathize. Otherwise, most callers never leave a message.

I noticed this behavior at work as well. My German colleagues would gladly transfer their phone to another human or busy-it-out long before turning on the voice mail. You might think, “Gee at least they tried to have a human answer their line …” but the net effect was that a name and number might be taken, but the colleague had little interest in actually transcribing anything more than that. They would simply take the name and number, put it on a message slip, and leave it on the absent colleague’s desk. Voicemail was to be avoided at all costs, because it actually gave a caller a chance to describe what they were after.

The thinking seems to be, if the problem is not yet described then there is no problem. My sister-in-law seems to subscribe to this idea, even though she is American-born. I used to know a lot of people in New York who were the same way. They too would leave timid “We need to talk” messages on the machine.

Not my family. We do business on the machine. During my New York days a few years ago, I once came back from picking up my deli-sandwich for lunch at my desk to a message waiting light. Since I was using both hands to eat a phenomenally good Reuben, I just let the messages play on speaker-phone …

“Mike, this is Andy. We need your help to chase that open invoice that is now 60 days past due. Can you talk to someone in Accounts Payable and see what you can do to help.” Good friend and vendor getting screwed by the corporate bureaucracy … gotta lean on A/P. Next.

“Hi Mike, it’s me (girlfriend of that time) … we need to talk. Can you give me a call back?” I hate it when she does that, but thus far it has not been anything dire … it’s just the way she does things (it turns out later what she wants to know is whether or not I will go to her parent’s that weekend). Next.

“Mike, this is Dan (the boss). I got your voicemail about your meeting with XYZ Co. I think the alternatives you outlined are good, especially number two … why don’t you go with that.” We don’t really need to see each other to get things done. My colleagues camp outside his door hoping to get a meeting, and are perpetually pissed that they can’t get face time, while I seem to be getting things done without it. Annoys them to hell. Next.

“Mike, it’s Dave (my Brother) … Grandma is dead. Thought you should know.” Two more follow, but I hang up at that point as my desk is surrounded by colleagues who, like it or not, now all share in my personal sorrows. Ah, the joys of open plan office spaces in New York.

Actually, my colleagues were mostly shocked that my Brother would leave this kind of news on voicemail. I, on the other hand, was relieved that I got it on voicemail rather than in person.

And this time around its my sister to tell me about my father ... thank heaven I get that on voice mail as well. It gives one a chance to reflect, collect the thoughts, and compose the official response before dealing with the family and the business that needs to be done.

To probably half the world that will sound cold, impersonal and calculating, but consider what is more cold? Is it not having the right words to say to younger brothers and sister who need comfort because you yourself haven’t fully processed the news in real-time, or is it saying what needs to be heard to get us all through?

6 Comments:

Blogger Maribeth said...

Hi Mike, sorry to hear about your father. How long will you be in the States?
I'll be thinking of you and hoping all is well.

4:36 PM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger EuroTrippen said...

I agree 100% with wishing all bad news was funneled to me in some (what others would view as) impersonal way. Enough can't be said for taking a moment to collect yourself in the face of whatever crap life shoots your way.

So sorry about your dad...

5:07 PM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger J said...

Terribly sorry to hear about your dad, Mike.

Can't think of anything else to say (for once).

10:22 PM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger Haddock said...

Sorry to hear about your dad Mike. You are right Germans don't like voicemail. I think its a very functional tool.

12:24 PM, June 14, 2006  
Blogger christina said...

Very sorry about your dad, Mike. Hope you and your siblings are doing OK.

I, too, prefer phone messages that are to the point. Up until a while ago, we seemed to be the only ones in our circle of (German) friends and aquaintances who had an answering machine and they all thought it was weird.

2:41 PM, June 14, 2006  
Blogger Mike B said...

Thank you all for the kind support.

7:04 PM, June 17, 2006  

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