Immersed - Leave a Message

Posted by Benjamin R. Weiss • Tuesday, March 16. 2010 • Category: Crossing Cultures
In those days, I still thought I could keep my shoes clean—a fool’s errand, I quickly realized, and a concern that, like many others, I’ve put to bed since setting down roots in Delhi two months ago. I was standing my new pair of spotless blue Nikes on the dusty, crumbling asphalt outside a mobile phone shop in Delhi’s bustling Lajpat Nagar Central Market. Leaning against the cold concrete frame of a vacant storefront, I tapped the keys on my new mobile phone, sampling a dozen or so ragas and Bollywood-inflected tunes in search of a fitting ringtone.

Did he leave a message?

I had arrived in India the night before. The ride from the airport was dark and mostly uneventful—I found the traffic patterns curious, to be sure, but there were only a few cars on the road at the late hour. It wasn’t until the next morning that I really started to experience the quirks of India.

I had been told—warned, I should say—that there was nothing that could prepare me for life here, that it would take a few days, maybe weeks, to adjust. And that was certainly the case.

But the richness of life here has really grown on me. And as I’ve tried to soak it all up, I’ve found it crucial to try to understand exactly where the nuances of personal interaction—the gestures, the habits, the slang—were born.

Many of the influences are clear enough: vibrant religious and cultural traditions, unrivalled geographic and human diversity, the great experiment with democracy, the legacy of colonialism. Each of these features, and countless others, contribute idiosyncrasies to everyday life that make India such a fascinating place to live, travel and explore.

Which brings me back to my cell phone.

After settling on a ringtone—“Morning Raga”—I thumbed around trying to find my voice mail settings. And I clicked. And fumbled. And clicked some more.


So I quickly punched in the Customer Service number. “Hi, I was wondering how to set up my voicemail,” I told the friendly service representative, assuming she’d chuckle and give me some basic advice.
“Umm, I’m sorry sir. I’ll have to transfer you to my manager.”

Not the response I expected. Nor could I foresee the subsequent confusion on the other end, as I shared my conundrum with helpdesk agent after helpdesk agent. The inquiry ended with apologies. “We’re sorry sir, we can’t help you with that.”

Perhaps the hotel staff could? Well, it turned out that, no, they couldn’t either. But for one very simple reason: voice mail is virtually nonexistent in India.

That revelation, in tandem with the explosion of mobile phone use in the country, has had a profound impact, I believe, on the daily habits of people in India.

Quick call-backs seem to be the norm, often accompanied with the greeting, “Hi, I just received a call from this number.” Many have taken to using the “Missed Call” feature to send various messages—“I’ve arrived,” for example, or “I don’t have credit to make a call, so please call me”—and SMS messaging is naturally very popular.

The lack of voicemail often means that callers will try to reach you repeatedly—I once received four missed calls from the same number in the span of a half hour from someone who, I’m pretty sure, knew I was in an office and likely unable to get to my phone. And many pick up their phones at intriguing moments—in a business meeting, at the dinner table, behind the wheel of a rickshaw—contributing to a norm of interruption that, like much else here, takes some getting used to.

In all, it’s clear that the lack of voice mail has a profound impact on the way personal communications are carried out. And my guess is that those effects spill over into other realms of social interaction like business, politics, familial relations and, perhaps, religious practice.

Or maybe I’ve got it backwards, and the lack of voice mail hasn’t spawned new behaviours and merely represents the latest iteration of age-old traditions and habits.

What do you think? If you’ve spent time here in India, have you observed the same phenomenon? And where do you think it all leads? As I continue to adapt to my new home, I’m eager to hear your thoughts—so please leave me a message.

And by the way, in case you were wondering, I haven’t dusted off my kicks in weeks.

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