Over the weekend, the New York Times published a story announcing the demise of voice mail, quoting a Vonage spokesperson who said that voicemail use had decreased 8 percent from last October to April of this year. The story positions millennials as being primarily responsible, as the text-preferring generation has little patience for sitting through a long, droning message.
But there’s another element here: awkwardness. The piece also quotes four-time Moth StorySLAM–winner Kate Greathead, who said, “I’m fine telling a story in front of 400 strangers, but get dry-mouthed when leaving a voice mail.” But it doesn’t delve much into the why factor; what exactly is it that makes leaving a message at the beep so deeply uncomfortable?
In a sense, leaving a voice mail taps into everything we fear about public speaking — with the added discomfort of receiving absolute silence from your audience, said Joshua Clegg, a psychologist at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in an email. (Clegg has studied social awkwardness.) The spotlight is on you, which can be panic-inducing enough. But in a more traditional public-speaking scenario, at least you get feedback from your audience, which means you get a chance to adapt to that response and potentially recover from any missteps.
Not so with the voice mail, which Clegg said reminds him of an experiment he did once. He asked participants to engage in an impromptu defense of their opinions on a given topic. They were all alone, and they were being filmed. “It was excruciating for most of them; many of them were sweating, fidgeting, looking at the ground, tongue-tied,” he said. “Some of them even had to quit in the middle because it was too difficult for them.”
I’d love to leave you with some kind of practical, “leave a less-awkward voice mail” type of advice, but in this case, Clegg said, it’s not even worth it. As he phrased it, “Things seem to become less awkward when they are fluid and familiar, but voice mail seems to be on its way out (we can all hope) so there is little point in getting good at it.” There you have it: permission from a scientist to avoid leaving voice mails and await the day when the system dies a natural death.