They’re Just Not Answering!

Steve Leone, editor of the Concord Monitor—the second largest newspaper in New Hampshire—makes me long for the good old days of old-fashioned communications. He actually, personally, answers his own phone.

I know this because when I called him I actually got right through, despite the media’s frenetic immersion in the week before the state’s presidential primary.

“You answer your own phone?” I asked him incredulously, saying to myself, no voicemail, no screening secretary? “Yes,” he said calmly, “I pick up my phone right away.” The result: from our conversation, he suggested that I write an op-ed. In 24 hours it was in the newspaper and online.

My larger point is that with the most advanced, communications systems in history at our disposal, it keeps getting harder to get through to people for a contemporaneous two-way exchange. I know people in the media, in the civic/academic communities and even many among my own circle of friends, who do not answer their phones, irregularly check their voice mail, and barricade their emails with filters and spam-detection software. Some now advise text-messaging, which hardly can compare with the two-way telephone conversations of past decades.

Over fifteen years ago, the Wall Street Journal noted a survey that concluded it took an average of six calls for people at work to reach their party. I’ve experienced calling reporters and going through three tiers of press one, press two, press three. One wonders how they get fast scoops these days.

And don’t talk about the airlines, the banks and almost any major business these days. Even Southwest Airlines has gone to voicemail, which for so long sustained the old ‘three rings and a human answers’ practice.

Sure, everybody is overloaded with messages, but is the volume slowing the process of getting things moving or done? Also, so cheap is high-velocity, massive communication these days (no fretting about long-distance calls), that people are wont to make far more calls for far less purpose—i.e., lots of low-level trivia and gossip.

After a while one has a mental list of people so hard to reach personally that attempts to contact them are not even made. We are all callers and callees; guess who’s got the power these days, other than venomous bill collectors who can damage your credit score if you don’t accede to their incessant demands?

I sometimes try sending a message by postal letter. “Letters,” people tell me when I finally get through to them, “who looks at the mail anymore?”

There are people in public life who are so committed to running away from the tsunami of calls and messages that when you do finally get their very-personal cell number, and they manage to answer, retort—“how’d you get my number?!”

All this is to point out that as there emerge more communications technologies, more apps, more defenses by callees against callers, the irritation level, and the time and productivity losses will continue to mount. I’ve yet to see any estimates about how much time is lost in the business world by people, including consumers, trying and trying again to get through to other people they’re trying to do business with, but it’s got to be billions of hours a year.

We all know many people who experience and complain about the difficulty of getting through. But no one seems to know any way out from the present overloads. However, also being a callee every day, there is that consolation of knowing how many ways you can keep “them” from getting through to you.

At gro.lrscnull@ofni, we’ll look at any of your suggestions.

Ralph Nader is a leading consumer advocate, the author of The Rebellious CEO: 12 Leaders Who Did It Right, among many other books, and a four-time candidate for US President. Read other articles by Ralph, or visit Ralph's website.