County Editor Scott Yost is taking a well deserved break from column writing. In the meantime, here is a classic Yost Column from 2005.


I got a call from former Rhino Times school coverer Lauren Slocum the other day.

“Hey,” I said.

“What’s up?” she said.

“Nothing, what do you need?” I asked.

There was silence for a moment.

You called me,” she said.

“I know,” I said. I had called her about an hour earlier. “But this time you called me.”

“You didn’t leave a message,” I said.

“Didn’t you hear?” I said.

“Hear what?”

“It’s uncool to leave messages anymore.”

“It is?” she said. Obviously this was the first she’d heard of it.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I never do it anymore. It’s very uncool.”

“Well, what if you want people to call you back?”

“You don’t need to leave a message; they always check to see who called and they always call back.”

“They do?”

Always,” I said. “You called, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

So I think I have a convert to my new movement – the Don’t Leave Messages Anymore Movement. Think of how much extra time we’ll have in our lives if we don’t waste time leaving and listening to messages.

Leaving messages is very uncool. (I should make one caveat: I’m talking about when it comes to your personal life. In your business life, it’s OK and indeed even necessary. In a minute, I’ll explain why that is.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, it’s very uncool.

I don’t want to get too scientific, but here’s how it got to be uncool; here’s what’s happened when virtually no one was watching – but they couldn’t get it past me: Caller ID made all answering machines and all voice mail obsolete.

Here’s why. You may not have realized it, but caller ID and answering machines are the exact same thing and, since we now have caller ID, there’s no need for voice mail or answering machines, unless you just enjoy duplication, repetition and redundancy for their own sake.

The reason it’s OK to leave messages when it’s business related is because not all businesses’ phones have caller ID. But all home phones and cell phones do.

When answering machines first came out, they were billed as a way for people to leave you messages when you weren’t home.

Before I get to why answering machines were really invented, think back to when they first came out. Remember how we had no idea how to interact with them. It’s because at first we really thought the machines were about messages and we didn’t know they were really Caller ID Version 1.0.

When I got my first answering machine, I had no idea what I was doing. I, like everybody else, would change the outgoing message like five times a day. That right there shows you how clueless we were. My outgoing messages would be stuff like, “Hello, this is Scott. I’m just going down to Harris Teeter for a few minutes to get some milk and eggs. It’s about 2:30 now, and I should be back sometime around 3. So I’ll call you back then. In a moment, you’ll hear a beep; then after that, leave your message and this new machine I just got will play it back for me when I get home and press the ‘play’ button.”

But now I never ever change my outgoing message on my voice mail. It’s been years and years since I did. I don’t even know how. I couldn’t even tell you what my outgoing message says because I never call my own phone. In fact, I’ve been divorced for five years and I think my message is probably one my ex-wife put on there. Come to think of it, I should probably check it because she might have left something mean on there on the way out.

Anyway, as time went on, everyone began to figure out how to really use answering machines. We figured out that the outgoing message didn’t matter at all. We finally realized you were supposed to put one outgoing message on there that would serve until the end of time. And we also began to understand that answering machines had nothing at all to do with messages.

No one wanted to come right out and say what they were really for, but the truth is answering machines were created to act as a buffer between cool people like you and me and the uncool people we don’t want to talk to. (One clue of this was the name – “answering machine;” notice it wasn’t a “messaging machine.” See, it’s not about “messaging,” it’s about “answering.”)

Before caller ID, your answering machine was your caller ID. You would “Let the machine get it,” and if it was someone cool calling and you wanted to talk to them, you would pick up the phone in the middle of their message, but if it was someone uncool, like an encyclopedia salesman, a bill collector or your boss wanting to know where you were, then you would let your answering machine run interference for you.

It was never about messages.

But once we got caller ID, that could run interference for you, so answering machines were suddenly obsolete.

And think about it: These days, I don’t think people even go to the trouble of checking their messages anyway. I know I don’t.

When I get home or haven’t been able to answer my cell phone for a while, I never check my messages; I look on my phone to see who called and that tells me everything I need to know. And, if you’re cool, I’ll call you back.

And then I say, “What’s up?” and my friend will say, “Didn’t you get my message?” And I’ll say, “No, I saw you called and I called you back.” And at some point in the conversation, I’ll say, “I’m going to erase your message, so if there’s anything on there I need to know, tell me what you said in the message.”

Though, the truth is, there’s almost never any real information on a message anyway. It always says something like, “Scott, this is so and so; I wanted to talk to you about something; give me a call.”

That is just about as short and sweet a message as you’re likely to get, but notice, when you break it down piece by piece, that even that concise one tells you nothing you don’t already know.

“Scott,” OK, stop there. I know my name. Nothing new there. “This is so and so.” Yeah, I know; it says so on my caller ID. “I wanted to talk to you about something.” I know that too, because you called at all. “Give me a call.” Got it, had it already, knew that was coming.

And a lot of times, messages aren’t short. Sometimes people drone on and on and on. In fact, it’s usually the people who drone on and on who get sent to voice mail in the first place.

The truth is, if you get my voice mail, most likely it’s not because I’m indisposed or can’t answer the phone; most likely I was staring at the phone as it was ringing and I saw it was you calling, and I decided that now was not the best time to talk to you. And don’t look at me like that, because all the cool people do it.

Your world might be more complicated than mine, but much of the time, I break the world down into basically two categories of people: cheerleaders and people I don’t want to talk to right now.

And just as my answering machine has been replaced by caller ID as the friend/foe filter, I understand that other people’s caller ID is that for them too, and I respect that.

Let me give you an example. I called Commissioner Carolyn Coleman this Sunday because I wanted to see whether she was going to vote to fire the county tax director or not. When I called, there was no answer though. So that was fine: Some people, even some county commissioners, don’t like to work on Sunday and, like I said, I respect that. She could look at her phone and know it was “S. Yost” calling, and she also knew I was calling to ask her about county stuff, not just to say, “Hey Carolyn, what up? I just wanted to call and shoot the breeze.”

So she had that choice: (1) get some ink or (2) enjoy her Sunday in peace. It looked like she had chosen (2), and that was fine by me.

A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was Carolyn.

“Why are you working on Sunday?” she asked.

I could hear in the background a bunch of people talking like she was at some sort of big get-together or whatever. I told her that if I didn’t work some on Sundays, my week always ended up brutal.

“So you’re making everyone else work on Sunday as well?” she said.

She said it nicely, but there was a little force behind it.

But here’s the thing. She can’t really complain because she knew it was me, and I intentionally didn’t leave her a message because I wanted it to be completely up to her whether she called me back because I didn’t want to make her think about the Guilford County Tax Department on a Sunday with great weather if she didn’t want to. And if she didn’t want to do that, she had the perfect out, because I never left a message.

But she called me back, again, without me leaving any message. So she chose to work on Sunday; it wasn’t me making her.

About a year ago, I gave you a one-question litmus test to tell if you were cool or not. I argued that if you knew the answer to one question – “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” – you were no doubt cool, and if you didn’t know the answer or thought I was just talking gibberish by asking that question, that you were, sad to say, no doubt uncool.

As I said then, the test has proven uncannily accurate time and time again; cool people almost always know the answer and uncool people almost never do.

But now here’s a new coolness test I can give you, and this one – which, like the unladen swallow test, is amazingly accurate – also has the added advantage of discerning degrees of uncoolness.

Here goes.

Do you leave messages on your friends’ machines?

No: cool.

Yes: uncool.

Now, for the degree of uncoolness. In a nutshell, the longer the messages you leave, the more uncool you are. With this new test you can tell – if you are uncool – your relative degree of uncoolness. For instance, if your messages are only 10 seconds long, you’re just slightly uncool. Here’s a few other benchmarks for you.

30 seconds long: moderately uncool

1 minute long: Michael Bolton uncool.

2 minutes: Carrot Top.

3 minutes: As uncool as bridesmaids look in those frou-frou dresses.

4 minutes: People who say, “Hot enough for ya”? and “You can’t get there from here.”

5 minutes: No current known equivalent exists in 2005, but somewhere on the scale of polyester leisure suits with floral designs.

Now you might say, Scott, no one leaves five-minute messages, and I would have to say that, though it is rare, believe me, it does happen – five minutes and longer in fact; trust me, I have proof.

Now, I know there’s some way to make it so people can only leave messages like a minute long, but (A) I don’t know how to set that, and (B) it doesn’t do any good because if uncool people are determined leave you a five-minute message, they’re gonna leave you a five-minute message, and they really don’t seem to care whether it all goes into one five-minute message or five one-minute messages, and (C) knock yourself out – I don’t care how long a message you leave, because I’m just going to erase it right after I call you back and ask you what your message says.

Anyway, if you would, I’d appreciate it if you could do your part to help with the Don’t Leave Messages Anymore Movement, so if you could help me spread the word, that would be great.