When Vodafone (then Hutch, or was it Orange?) offered voicemail on my cellphone, I immediately got it activated. I hoped to move to a system where I never ever pick up phone calls from unknown numbers. If I heard a voicemail I was interested in, I would call back. Unfortunately, it turned out that people rarely left voice messages.
Those who were calling from numbers known to me had no reason to leave voicemails. Obviously, telemarketers wouldn’t dare to leave a messagge, But even someone calling from an unknown number, but had reason to believe that I would want to call back, wouldn’t leave a message. The only people who did leave messages were people who had gotten into the habit of leaving them, typically by interacting with phoreners. This means that I couldn’t put in place the system I wanted. I had to call back every number.
I realize that we don’t leave messages because we have not developed a culture of leaving messages. Unless you are used to leaving messages, when an voice comes up asking you to leave a message, composing a crisp message stating your name and a number to call back on is a struggle. The most obvious reason why we didn’t develop such a culture is that we had no occasion to. Till the late 80s, even getting a phone was a struggle; buying a separate answering machine would have been a luxury. After cellphones and caller ids became common, a missed call is sufficient indication of who called; and usually we know why they called and have an idea whether to call back. In a sense, this is one of the areas where we have adopted a more advanced technology, bypassing the need for an intermediate technology.
I am guessing that even apart from the above reason, there would have been other reasons why Indians would not have adopted the answering machine. First, somehow, it seems rude to have others announce why they are calling. Second there would have been no reason to have an answering machine because there would always be someone at home. Third, why call back and incur the cost, when you can just answer the phone and talk to the other person for free? Fourth, when you have a multiple language situation, in which language would you want your greeting to be? This barrier can be significant. If you have an English greeting and someone who doesn’t know English calls you, they will get confused and hang up, and this will retard the adoption of the answering machine. (True story: I had told my mother that if she left a message, I would get an SMS and call her back. Her first few messages were in English, though I speak Kannada with her. It turned out that she thought that the system actually transcribed the message and sent it as an SMS, and she reasoned that it wouldn’t be able to do it for Kannada messages.)
Still, I wish we’d adopted the culture of leaving voice messages. It seems much more respectful of people’s time and priorities.