Technology · The Last Half Century

While You Were Out

It’s hard now for me to think that there was actually a time when you were unreachable when you left home or the office — you were gone as in no one was able to contact you. There were no cell phones, pagers or even voice mail. If someone called the office and no one answered the phone, you hung up and tried later. If you had an assistant who answered the phone, they would write a message on paper for you with the name, number and reason the person called.

This was so common that there were actually little “While You Were Out” note pads you could buy in office supply stores. Early in my career, I would return to my office to find these notes on my desk. The longer I was gone, the bigger the stack of notes. One of my first tasks upon returning to the office was to go through the stack and return calls. Sometimes the people I called back were out of the office. If someone else answered the phone, I left a message. This back and forth of leaving messages was fondly known as telephone tag.

I think what amazes me about that era before cell phones, texting and emails is how people just accepted the fact that you were unavailable. It might have been annoying to have to make several attempts to reach someone, but you learned to just wait. If there was a real emergency, you could try calling the person at their location. When our kids were little, we would leave our schedule and the phone numbers of the places we would be with the person watching our kids.

What this meant is that if you left the office, you were disconnected from the office. In a meeting you could sit with people and have a focused conversation without the interruption of cell phones. The work at the office waited until you returned. It seemed people were okay with having to wait to talk to you. But of course I would sometimes hear from people frustrated they could not reach me. “You’re never there!” or “You’re impossible to reach!”

Of course every technology has its trade offs. Having access to people most any time or place is convenient, but it also makes it harder to disconnect yourself for awhile from any communication. It also makes it harder to play telephone tag.

© 2022 CGThelen

One thought on “While You Were Out

  1. Oh,wow! That’s such an incredibly strong memory. During issues, we’d get stacks of those little notes from media. One nice thing was having time to stop and formulate an appropriate response rather than talking off the top of your head or in abbreviations and emojis!! Those were the days!

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