There are two kinds of phone users in the world: people who leave voicemails for other people and people who ignore voicemails from other people.

On Monday, the New York Times ran an article by Nick Bilton laying out ground rules for digital etiquette in the world of unlimited texting, smartphones, and Twitter. He argued that leaving a voicemail was "impolite" because it wastes the receiver's time it takes to retrieve information that could be conveyed via text. He also humble-bragged about straight-up ignoring a dozen voicemails from his father and revealed that he and his mother now "communicate mostly through Twitter," which is not only like something out of a dystopian novel, but also an insane use of Twitter — like sipping soda from a bottle cap.

People ripped into Bilton in the comments for these points and others (he argued that it was rude to send a thank-you text because it takes too much time for the recipient to read it, which is one heartbeat away from saying it is rude to ask someone "How are you?" because it takes too much time for them to tell you). But on the voicemail subject I have to agree.

I hate receiving voicemails.

If cellphone users are Jacob Marley, voicemails are our chains, forged link by link, call by unanswered call. You would do anything to erase the voicemail icon off your home screen, except listen to the voicemails.

My relationship with voicemails is morbid, shaped by a vague worry that every call I receive from someone could be The Last Call. I feel irritated as soon as I see I've got a new voicemail, but I obsessively save sweet "Just calling to check in" messages from my mother, father, and grandmother, just on the off-chance they will die unexpectedly. I was recently talking to a friend who said he'd find it "morbid" to keep hearing someone's voice after they were gone. I think it would be comforting to have it to play back; a nice unrushed goodbye (as opposed to the usual "Gotta go, gonna lose my signal, loveyoubye" conversation endings).

My phone stores saved messages in its archive, but only for fourteen days, making it less a comprehensive record of the past and more an important note carved in the sand.

Here's the only message currently saved on my phone:

Hi, Caity Weaver! It's your pop callin'. Just callin' to say hello. I don't have any emergency; no messages. Mom wanted to talk to you and so I figured I'd call and talk to you first. She doesn't have anything special either but, y'know, we'll talk to you later. Love youuuuu! Buh-bye.

In a way, this seems like it would be the worst kind of message to receive: "Just calling to tell you I didn't have anything to tell you and I'll call you later," but, really, this the only kind of voicemail you should ever leave on someone's phone. Low-key. Not time sensitive. They listen to it or they don't.

Here's a little guide we've put together to help you[r parents] decide when it's appropriate to leave a voicemail message on someone else's phone.

Don't leave a voicemail message if:

  • You're calling to tell me something time-sensitive or urgent. It will be at least 24 hours before I learn that you'll "be at the grocery store for the next ten or so minutes if you need anything."
    Instead: Text your deal with the phrase "Call me!"
  • You're calling with important news—a birth, a death, a rebirth, a rising from the dead, etc. I want to hear that you gave birth to our child from you. Not from a Maury Povich. Not from a voicemail.
    Instead: Text saying "Big news — call me!" or (if you have a lot of time and unlimited calling on your hands), call until I pick up. (Bonus: When I see I have 11 missed calls from you, I'll realize something important has happened and get back to you right away.)
  • You're calling to tell me to call you back. I'll be way more motivated to call you back if I see you've called and not left a voicemail. A voicemail tells me our information transaction is complete; you've delivered your message. A missed call tells me our information transaction is beginning.
    Instead: Let your number show up in my missed calls list. Maybe follow-up with a "Just checking in; call me when you're free to chat" text. If you're more frantic, "CALL ME!!!!" works too.

Do leave a voicemail message if:

  • You're calling a landline. Voicemails : landlines :: text messages : cell phones. "Oh, boy, three messages! Can't wait to see what everyone's calling to tell me!" Also, landlines often don't have "missed call" records. Make your mark, friend.
  • You're unable to text. Maybe you're too old to typedy-type a message on the phone's tiny keys. Maybe you have no hands. You are the reason we haven't disabled voicemail on our phones.
  • You've got to sing. A couple weeks ago, I stepped off the subway to see I'd received a voicemail from my friend Talia. It's unusual for her to call rather than text, so I listened to it right away, in case something was wrong. "I'm actually glad you didn't pick up," she said on the recording, "because this would have made a kind of underwhelming phone call. But it will make a REALLY GOOD message." Then she sang a Nicki Minaj verse that she kept mishearing. I texted her back—didn't call—to let her know that she was right on both accounts.
  • You're just calling to say you love me. Because you'll die one day and I want to save that sweet message forever/14 days.

Voicemails: leave them or leave 'em?

[Image by Devin Rochford.]