Elections make it folly to answer a telephone

Posted by GT on October 10th, 2008 — Posted in Newspaper columns

Originally published in July 2006, The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colo.

There was a time, somewhere before the turn of the century, when you could call it rude to let your answering machine pick up calls while you were home. If someone cared enough to reach out and touch you through the phone, the least you should do was pick up when it rang, right?

Not anymore. In this age of Caller ID and alleged “surveys” created to get around the rules of no-call lists, it’s almost a bigger waste of time to chance answering a phone than it is to read “urgent and confidential” messages plugging your e-mail.

This is especially true when an election is less than six months away … which means pretty much always.

Back up a second. To me, the phrase “call screening” is as much an everyday part of life as “going to the bathroom.” It’s just something I have to do every now and then (more “now” than “then” as I get older). But for the benefit of those old-fashioned enough to actually answer the phone themselves, call screening works like this:

The telephone rings. My heart clenches; I know picking it up might be the beginning of some happy contact with a family member or friend, but it will just as likely be the start of an unpleasant experience. If I decide I’m not up to the risk, I move to within hearing range of our answering machine and point my left ear toward it. The machine picks up after four rings and invites the caller to leave a message; I wait to hear what follows.

If it’s a voice I like hearing, I hurry to the telephone, pick it up and make some lame excuse about why the machine answered. Maybe I should just ‘fess up and say I was screening, hoping the person is flattered I found him or her worthy of picking up, but I don’t.

If it’s a hang-up, I assume it’s a call I didn’t want anyway but fear I’ve missed a rare chance to talk with one of my sisters.

But man, half the time lately what we get on our answering machine is a couple seconds of silence (if I’d picked up I’d be going “Hello? Hello! HELLO!”), a click, and then a recorded political message.

“Hi! I’m Petey Pleasant. Rep. X is standing up against special interests…”

“Congressman Y never skips a chance to raise your taxes…”

“You’re invited to Candidate Z’s party in the park…”

When I listen to these messages at all, it’s mostly so I can make sure to hold them against the people who decided to take me away from better things to hear them. Even if it’s someone I agree with, I get so aggravated that I figure this couldn’t possibly be someone I’d want representing me in office.

Considering how many candidates resort to these tactics, it creates a conundrum picking one come Election Day.

I’m sure these kind of phone commercials represent an escalation in political battles. It got cheap and easy to deliver recorded messages to house after house after house, and candidates who didn’t care that it was rude started doing it. Those people got thousands of calls made and didn’t have to replace volunteers who manned the phones and listened to abuse from people who didn’t like having their dinner interrupted.

Other candidates who might have resisted such tactics feared they were falling behind and started doing it themselves. I suspect all they considered was the number of calls that were being made, and since a machine won’t tell you about the people who cursed it and slammed down the phone, they don’t get an idea of how many constituents they’re irritating.

I recognize that maybe I’m simply too territorial about having my phone lines invaded. For all I know, everyone else is flat delighted when they answer the ring and hear a commercial.

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