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Senior Correspondent

This time tomorrow
Reckon where I'll be
Down in some lonesome valley
Hangin' from a white oak tree
–Ballad of Tom Dooley

Tom Dooley was a big hit for the Kingston Trio back in 1958. The song commemorates the 1866 hanging of man here in North Carolina. He was convicted of murdering one Laura Foster.  Yet, like moonshiners outrunning "revenuers" and funding for public education, hanging has largely vanished from the Old North State. That does not mean that we can walk the forests unintimidated by the trees that surround us. But the trees of the 21st century carry a different threat than the white oak trees of the 1860s. Today's trees can leave you dangling for hours, sometimes days, as you slowly lose consciousness and the world turns dark before your eyes. I refer, of course, to the dreaded "phone tree."

This summer has, much to our chagrin, brought us into contact with a number of large healthcare and banking organizations — and their sequoia-sized phone trees. First the phone rings for a few minutes — three maybe five. Then a machine answers: "Hello this is GigantaCare. If you are having a medical emergency and are still alive please hang up and dial 911." OK, I made up the bit about still being alive. I suppose it could be construed as an acknowledgement of organizational recognition that they were "in touch" with a sick person who might die on them, and hence they might actually have a liability issue. Not that they would ever use the word liability, as the sentence "Hang up and call 911." is designed specifically to avoid any kind of liability. Anyhow, the machine then goes on to list 312 options from which to select. By the time they reach the end of the list you decide you don't really feel that bad, and besides the bleeding has pretty much stopped.

The bank uses a slightly different strategy. After their initial "wait you out with unending rings" ploy, they begin with "HELLO! Your call is very important to us. Please listen closely as our menu items have changed." Then they cut right to their list of 312 options. I listened — nary a pepperoni pizza on the whole menu. So I used a fairly dependable strategy: I pressed nothing. Most phone trees have a "silence response." If you say NOTHING, eventually they forward you to a person — to avoid liability in case you may actually be dying. You can also keep hitting O. That usually works and gets you to a person. The problem I encountered at MegaBank was that even after speaking to five different people on at least three different continents no one could really answer my question — which I eventually figured out for myself after spending three hours on their website. It wasn't simply a question of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing, it was that the right hand didn't know that there was a left hand. Meanwhile, the left hand was talking to the bellybutton.

A couple of thoughts and a strategy.

First, the phone tree is not designed to facilitate communication, it is designed to simulate communication and to allow the company to appear to have attended to your needs. It occasionally does meet some low level communication needs. Appointments, directions, a simply bill paying procedure. Stuff that is actually done more effectively through websites. But when it comes to important issues, the phone tree is "make-believe communication." But before we heap derision upon them, we need to acknowledge that social media like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter are pretty much the same thing. Something has happened or is about to happen and we post it on a social media site. Ta da! we have done our job. We have announced it to "the world." Well, no, of course not. We have neatly side-stepped centuries of common courtesy that says "Look at me when you are talking to me." We simply shout from the rooftop and if someone isn't listening — well, that's their fault right? Press one if you think that is BS, press two if… 

So phone trees and social media are two facets of an accelerating communication phenomenon — a strange return to  the "mass media" of the 1950s — a one to many model. The TV station broadcasts the message and the "masses" tune in — or not. In theory the digital age disrupted that model by empowering the individual — I can email who I want, I can send this picture, this song, to whomever I choose. I can function as an independent entity. And then came Zuckerberg and Facebook and the depersonalization of "friend." A "friend" on Facebook or any of the other social medium is now the functional equivalent of the "audience member" of the mass media of the 1950s. For a celebrity who has 5 million followers on Twitter, the follower is a fan — no more, no less. And just as "audience members" were incredibly important to early television, our social media contacts do have important functions, just be careful not to mistake a post on social media for a conversation with a friend. They certainly do not free us from the basic social niceties owed to real friends and family members. We cannot assume that a post on social media is a message to a loved one — that is both foolish and rude.

Which, strangely, brings me back to phone trees and a strategy for dealing with them. Here is something to remember — the phone tree stands as a barrier between you and the people who can actually solve your problem. When my bank sent me drifting around the world to solve my problem I was talking to IT [information technology] people who were focused on why the software wasn't working. They couldn't actually address my specific question regarding which account was paying which bill. GigantaCare wanted to know whose voicemail to forward me to — not who could answer my questions. So I did something bizarre. I got into my car and drove to the physical locations of the institutions. The results were fascinating. The people who could solve my problems were not the people on the phone tree. They were the people behind the desk, and they were friendly and helpful. They got the job done.

I know it seems ironic. Digital technology was supposed to free us from all that driving around, it was supposed to save us time. But it hasn't. When we are stuck in phone tree hell, or worse yet in "Please leave your name and number" hell, we automatically shove completing that task another day or two down the road. Three or four if a weekend looms. But if the place of business is less than an hour's drive away, I am saving an incredible amount of time, literally days, by driving there and getting the job done. I know, I know, can I really be away from my desk that long? Wait a minute. I no longer work at a desk that much. I shove my iPad or iPhone in my case and carry the office around with me. So often I can drive to the bank or doctor's office and set up my office in their office. It's like "going to a meeting" in the old days. Then when the person at the desk gets off the phone and looks looks up, I smile and say "Hello. I hope you can help me." Nine times out of ten I actually get my needs met — there and then. Press one if you think that is awesome.

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