Modern Etiquette: Does voicemail make you nervous?

(Reuters) - Does leaving a voicemail message create performance anxiety for you? If it does, you probably are a millennial. There’s good news and bad news about this. The good news is that you are early in your career, with lots of opportunities to make a positive difference in your world.

A bourse trader uses a cell phone during a trading session on the trading floor at Frankfurt's stock exchange August 2, 2011. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

The bad news is that, if you are a millennial, you cannot afford to regard leaving voicemail messages as obsolete. There are four generations actively participating in the workplace. This is unprecedented. It means that, while Baby Boomers are learning to text, millennials also must become adept at using voicemail.

Landlines continue to have a place in business and are in fact more prevalent than cell phones as primary telephone numbers…at least for now.

It behooves all of us to consider a refresher on voicemail etiquette. Here goes:

Your own answering greeting should be short. Don’t bother to say that you aren’t available to take the call. That’s a waste of time, and there’s no point in restating the obvious. Instead, simply identify yourself and ask the caller to leave a message.

If you really mean it, say you will return the call as soon as possible. For example, “This is Mary Mitchell. Please leave a message and I will call you back as soon as I can.” If you want to give another option to reach you, go ahead, but limit it only to one telephone number or email address.

When you leave a voicemail message, be sure to identify yourself right away. Give your return phone number at the beginning of your message so that other people don’t have to listen to you twice. Speak slowly and clearly. It helps to pretend to be writing your number in the air, which will slow you down and help with clarity. Say when you can be reached.

If there are specific messages, be concise, and let the person know at the beginning so she can be listening for the information. For example, “I’m calling to let you know two things.

First, I got the information about the meeting. I will meet you in the building lobby at 2:30. See you then. You might want to repeat your number at the end of your message. That would sound like, “Again, my number is xxx-xxxx should you need it.” Then just hang up. There is nothing rude about that; you don’t need to say good-bye, since there was no conversation.

I find it helpful to imagine that I am writing a memo when I leave voicemail messages. Outlining points enhances my own clarity and puts the listener on notice for the information.

Never use voicemail as a way to avoid speaking with someone. It doesn’t help, and a person would have to be terminally dense not to figure out your game. If you must call when you know the other person isn’t available, say, “I know you won’t be able to take the call now, but I wanted to let you know that...”

Let’s get back to performance anxiety. Our fear of being judged negatively fuels our performance anxiety in any situation. When it comes to voicemail, we are being judged on our tone of voice and the clarity of our information.

Remember that we can hear a smile in another person’s voice, just as we can discern whether that individual is completely present and focused. Smart phones have the ability to record. Smart people take advantage of this tool and record themselves before leaving a message. And yes, it takes time. Precious time.

Yet what do winning sports teams do that most individuals do not? They practice. Think about it. The few seconds we invest in practicing our message can create or nurture a positive relationship. That’s a personal win for the caller. On the other hand, a messy message can cost us a valued relationship.

Why bother, you might ask? Good manners create good relationships. Good relationships create successful careers. It’s not the other way around.

(Mary M. Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, now in 11 languages, most recently “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to ModernManners Fast Track” and “Woofs to the Wise”. She is the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization ( The opinions expressed are her own.)

Editing by Michael Roddy