Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Today my friend Cara, a fellow expatriate New Yorker asked me a very valid question: "Why don't Argentines leave phone messages?" Her Spanish instructor had been trying to reach her, and rather than leaving one detailed voice mail and going about his day, he called three times before finally sending her a text message saying, "I can't get a hold with you." Well, Cara thought to herself, then leave a freakin' message!

You can say--or think?--that again! My phone has been ringing off the hook today with nary a message to show for it. But I've come to the conclusion that this fear of voice mail is a worldwide--not merely an Argentine--phenomenon (though it does seem to be exponentially worse here). Back when I lived in the U.S., my life was occasionally haunted by callers who refused to leave messages--and not just ones of the telemarketing persuasion. The obvious reason is that, unlike with text messages, there is no editing of voice mails. I'm reminded of the episode of Friends that Monica spent obssessing over a voice mail she left on Richard's answering machine. Been there, done that, been just as horrified.

I think another reason for this is our instant-gratification culture. The higher the need for instant-gratification, the greater the number of phone calls without messages. And as yours truly has well documented right here, there's an extremely high need for instant-gratification among porteños. And I'm not just talking about between the sheets.

That's probably why they are so obsessed with IM. If a person is listed as being online, you know there is a good chance that you can have your conversation with them right then and there. Never mind that many people don't bother to log in and out of MSN Messenger, so their being listed as "online" doesn't necessarily mean there's anyone home.

But I think something else is at play here. I'm thinking of the guy who used to send me regular IM's asking me out for coffee, empanadas, booty calls or whatever people in this city like to do for casual afternoon get-togethers. I explained to him that I'm not into spur-of-the-moment meet-and-greets (actually, I am, but only with good friends, for whom I do not have to look my best), and he'd have better luck with me if he'd give me at least a few hours notice, but preferably 24, just in case I have a life. He responded that he is afraid of making plans in advance, because when the time comes around, he often doesn't feel like being social anymore.

I get it. Really, I do. I spend much of my spare time looking for ways to get out of plans. And I've said it before (right on this blog), and I'll say it again: I hate talking on the phone. With the exception of a few very good friends, I'd rather chew glass than while away hours on the telephone. For me, the phone should be reserved for making plans to meet up and have face-to-face conversations--unless, of course, we're talking about potential new boyfriends. I don't do it as much now, but in New York, I'd often dread returning phone calls so much that I'd call at a time when I knew the person wouldn't be available. Or I'd respond to a voice mail with a text message or an email. Which in technological communication protocol is probably ruder than responding to a text message with a phone call, right?

Oh, stop giving your computer dirty looks. You know you've done it, too. And that brings me back to people who don't leave phone messages. In Argentina, part of it has to do with the pay-as-you-go mobile phone system. Leaving a message costs money, something porteños have in short supply. So it's best to save those pesos for when you actually get someone on the other line. But also, I think, like the last-minute invitation guy, just because they want to talk to you right now, doesn't mean they'll want to talk to you in an hour, two hours, two weeks--or whenever you might finally decide to return the phone call. If you do.

Which brings me to my next reason: Insecurity. Unanswered emails, text messages or Facebook invitations are one thing. But an unreturned voice mail is the ultimate diss. The problem with letting this thinking drive your actions is that a person who leaves one simple, unrambling message looks a lot less crazy and pathetic than someone who calls every 10 minutes for an hour without leaving one. In fact, the person who leaves the message, whether or not I return the call, actually comes across to me as being respectable. And they're more likely to hear back from me. In less than two weeks.

Recently, this guy named Javier took the road less traveled and left two or three messages on my home voice mail in the space of two weeks. Unfortunately, he never left his number and my land line doesn't have caller ID. Now I'm not even 100% sure who Javier is (I meet so many guys with the same 10 names here that it's hard to narrow it down sometimes), but the fact that A) he wasn't afraid to call, and B) he wasn't afraid to leave messages, impressed me. If he'd left his number, I would have used it.

Javier, if you're reading this, keep up the good work. But next time, leave your number.
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