Why Don’t Indians Leave Voicemails?

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.

15 thoughts on “Why Don’t Indians Leave Voicemails?

  1. There’s also the SMS culture which is quite prevalent among people who have grew up with it. For eg, when I don’t pick up the phone, most of callers do leave a text message indicating the reason why they had called up. But I agree, leaving a voice message should probably be more easier than typing a text message!

  2. Oh I used to do that too, until I started working, which involves ‘phoren’ clients ofcourse..I mean, if I reached anyone’s voice mailbox, I just used to hang up — I felt stupid talking to no one at the other end :-(, I would get uncomfortable and just hang up,,!! But now, I am pretty used to ‘talking to no one at the other end’, because of my work life, so yea..I do leave msgs now.

  3. 1. The caller is has to pay for airtime while leaving a voice mail. When a “missed call” works almost just as well, why bother?

    2. Want to convey urgency? Just leave multiple missed calls.

    3. If it is a personal phone call (to a friend or family member), then there is no reason to leave voice mail because you expect the other party to call back at the earliest anyway.

    4. I guess voice mail would make some sense in intra-organizational non-mobile calls, but not having worked in that sort of corporate environment, I have no idea if employees actually use it.

    PS: I tend to prefer SMSes to voice mail precisely for the reason that you prefer voice mails. I would rather read an SMS than waste time going through the voice mail menu to listen to the same message. Missed calls never waste my time because I never return those from unknown numbers anyway.

  4. Isn’t one SMS cheaper than one call in general? Then there are loads of plans with plenty of free SMSes. Anyway, my preference is for the case when there is information that, for some reason, just has to be conveyed (a one way communication that doesn’t require a return call). In general, I am quite satisfied with people leaving me missed calls. All the foreigners who have been taught by me in the fine art of leaving missed calls are also quite satisfied with their reduced bills.

  5. Ah yes.. I don’t think it makes sense to adopt the culture of voice messages now that we have missed calls, caller id and SMS. I am just amused that people send me an SMS even when I redirect them to voicemail, spending on both a call and an SMS. Worse still, they don’t leave a message or an SMS, leaving me wondering if I missed something important. Or they don’t leave a message, don’t wait for me to call back and call me again and again neglecting my convenience.

  6. On a humorous note, someone from an earlier generation refused to be persuaded to have a answering machine at home with the following reasoning – ” caller will know that nobody is at home and attempt burglary”

  7. Nice! I was actually a bit skeptical of your analysis when I started reading this. Even though I never leave messages myself. (This is actually strange. I never leave voice messages when I’m in India. But if I’m outside the country, I always leave a message when I get the machine!)

    However, I think your points are all spot on! Nice post.

  8. I realize that we donít leave messages because we have not developed a culture of leaving messages.

    Ada ada.. what observation!

  9. Many indians (north indians and mallus) confuse message and massage. When the machine says – leave a message, they start thinking of other things and drop the phone. All you need to do is to go to youtube India, and find that the most watched video is “mallu aunty – oil message!”

  10. my view – its down to our own lack of trust and cultural instinct to believe in ‘active’ chase ups. The feeling that our messages will not receive attention and that we ‘need’ to grab attention now above all else that might be going on with the other person. This is also why we jump queues (if we form them to begin with), also the reason why we bribe our ways through, use favours. We innately do not trust the other person to respond unless we chase them up. This I also suspect comes from generations of dealing with governement and public institutions.

  11. Do you accept guest posts? I just like the style how you wrote Why Don’t Indians Leave Voicemails?, I’m in this topic for ages and I would adore to write 2 or 3 articles or reviews right here if you agree with me.

  12. I live in Dallas, TX, and moved here 13 years back. I have spent a major portion of my life in India – well I guess that makes me “qualified”enough to comment. I personally believe that using the voice mail thing is a cultural issue. Indians, do not believe in stuff like “urgency”, “returning calls” or the “politeness of leaving messages” either. Now before you take the guns from your holsters, and start calling me names, let me say this. This is purely a cultural thing – and nothing to do with being “anti Indian”.

    I remember the first time I got an answering machine in India, way back in the 90’s. I had a polite recording inviting callers to leave their name, and phone number with a brief message. Result: Zilch messages. People would call me later to say that they believed they reached the wrong number (when my voice and message on the machine were both crystal clear). People were intimidated by technology, never knew what a voice – mail was, did not like to talk to a machine……… there could be a zillion theories.

    Fast forward time by 20 something years. The home phone is gone. India has the second largest market for cell phones in the world. India is considered an “Asian tiger”, Indians provide technology based solutions to the rest of the world. That being said, the basic character of Indians has not changed, and possibly would take several decades for that to happen. Even today, most cell phones do not have voice mail. I consider the reasons cited before, lame duck excuses. The fact is we are not polite people. We do not like to leave messages – we would rather talk to someone than leave a message. We don’t return calls, unless it is ” important” or it a close friend or relative on the other end. We also think that leaving a message on a voice mail is like giving out your personal information.

    To me, who lives in Dallas TX, it is frustrating, but then, it is an ” Indian” thing. Who am I to question an “Indian” thing?

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