Sorry, I'm not here ... in either language

OK, something's steaming the lens of my telescope, so bear with me. Why must outgoing telephone messages from federal government offices be in both official languages? It's a staggering waste of time.

As a well-connected astronomer, I dial a lot of government phone numbers and rountinely spend up to two minutes listening to people tell me twice that they are not around, in two separate languages.

Did I miss a bone-headed Treasury Board directive? Are public servants forced to do this? As a popular comedian once remarked, I think we're all pretty familiar with the whole answering-machine-please-leave-a-message drill no matter what language we speak. The thing beeps and you talk into the phone. That's it. There are no special instructions, cryptic Da Vinci Code passwords or skill-testing questions.

The outgoing bilingual phone message is a gigantic time burglar. If Stats Can were to study this phenomenon, I'm certain we would discover it is costing the Canadian economy hundreds of millions of dollars in productivity annually while people sit stupefied at their desks, listening for cumulative hours on end to repetitive and entirely annoying messages. And then having to hang up because they forgot why they called in the first place. (Yes, laugh if you must, but this has happened to me.)

What's next, English, French, then Inuit throat singing versions of the I'm-not-here spiel to let us know the bureaucrat is in yet another meeting? Don't get me wrong, I support the whole idea of bilingualism and the Official Languages Act. But there has to be a smarter way to do this.

So a fervent plea to the tens of thousands of federal employees who regularly read this blog: How about simply answering with, "Hello, you've reached Wanda Prudentmanager's voice mail. Je ne suis pas disponible en ce moment. Please leave a message. Merci."

This will work for 99.9 per cent of callers. And trust me, you don't want a message from the other 0.1 per cent anyway.


Agatha said...

Is this an Anglo phenomenon, I wonder? My experience has been that Anglos are doing the bilingual message more. Not sure about their Franco counterparts, though. I think we are going to have to consult some of our field operatives on this one. My questions are --
1)Did someone just start doing the bilingual message thing, and then it just spread like wildfire and became "cool"?
2) Was there an actual 'directive'?
3) Are people just trying to show off their language training--prove to taxpayers that they are indeed using the second official language even for a few brief seconds on a recorded message?
I think we need more data on this one, IO.

The Independent Observer said...

Excellent questions, Agatha. I will make some inquiries and provide updates. Other insights are welcome. (Meanwhile, the phenomenon continues unabated: I have already heard two endless, repetitive messages today. Luckily, in each instance I wrote down why I was calling in large capital letters, so I did not forget.)

PhilG said...

This is strictly anecdotal, but a number of years ago a friend in Calgary who worked for a national agency was told that minions from the Commissioner of Official Languages were, at that time, following up on complaints and checking on government employees to ensure they were greeting callers in both languages; this also extended to voice messages. Wouldn't surprise me if that concern didn't factor in to some folks' messaging behaviour.

Sonja said...

Can't one normally press # to skip the message? At my recently departed workplace, it was actually "8" on had to press. So I used to have people telling me they tried to press # to skip my lengthy bilingual message and it didn't work. Then I added to my message "please press 8 to skip this message" near the beginning, to train everyone.

coyote said...

Sonja, one normally can press something to skip the message. But some diabolical dirtbags remove that option from their PBX systems. I'm not sure why.

I believe, Philg, that you're correct in laying some blame at the feet of the Commissioner of Official Languages. I understand that he/she even sent out a 'suggested' (miles-long) outgoing message template, so if you had phone-fright, performance anxiety, (or merely had allowed your minimal A-level language rating to lapse through utter disuse) you could just read it into your voicemail.

Of course, like virtually all beureaucratic prose, it took five times as many words as necessary to state the very simple: in my experience, a number of swivel serpents -- although obviously, not enought, yet -- have since defaulted to something like the IO's suggested short form. Many are not without sympathy, and dislike the IO's bane themselves, but the language commissioner can be a, um, harsh mistress...