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When a Computer Answers, Try Responding with Silence


Not long ago, we told you about an annoying development at the telephone company. When you need a phone number and call directory assistance, instead of getting a human being, you get a robotic woman's voice, from which you try -- and usually fail -- to get the phone number you need. If you're lucky, the robot gives up and puts you through to a live operator.

Well, the trend is spreading. Just today, we overheard a colleague screaming loudly into the phone:

EARLIER TRAIN...AGENT....YES.

What in the world would cause someone to shout such disjointed words into the phone?

He was talking to another robot, of course, trying to book a simple train reservation.

All over the building, we're hearing outbursts like:

SNAKESKIN....COOL MINT...SHOULDER STRAP.

and finally,

Get me a REAL PERSON, you idiot!!

Such outbursts really confuse the machine on the other end. So do the many accents of our callers here in the VOA building. The robot just can't understand them.

But a friend of ours has come up with a possible solution, or at least a satisfying strategy, for dealing with this infuriating technology.

When the robot lady or gentleman says something like, "Please say the name of the department you wish to reach . . . "

. . . you stay completely silent. The robot will then shift to its concerned and caring voice: "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."

If you continue to remain silent, it will usually break down and transfer you to a human, to whom you can describe the snakeskin, cool-mint color, shoulder-strap-model purse you're trying to order.

Or, if you're NOT so lucky, the machine will spit out its very favorite line: "Sorry. I didn't understand that. Please call again! Goodbye! "

Click!

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