Meet Joseph Zimmerman.

Meet Joe

You may not know who he is by name but, what he invented changed the very fundamentals we hold at the center of our modern communications. He likely did not understand the gravity of his invention at the time. He likely saw it as the first successful implementation in a long series of attempts by many others before him to create a device that would be a boon to businesses everywhere, help their customers, and perhaps save them some money. Little did he know that at the heart of what he invented was a ground breaking paradigm shift. Something that would shift responsibilities and expectations we hold for others in basic ways. So, what was this device?

The answering machine.

That right. Humble on it’s simple mission, yet so very subversive. You see, before Mr. Zimmerman’s device, when someone called you on a telephone, and you were not available, the responsibility was on the caller to try again, not you, the receiver. There was no way to know if you missed a call. To businesses, lost calls meant lost customers. Therefore, operators and secretaries were often hired to take these calls, take down a message, and deliver it to the right person. To an individual, a missed call was simply that and no one but the caller held any responsibility for action.

The answering machine was welcomed by businesses and, by the time I was in my early teens, existed in many homes. If we called and left a message, we expected a return call. It alleviated much of our own responsibility for further action and replaced it with expectations we then placed on the recipient. For instance, expectations of a timely followup that are not agreed upon, are largely based upon what the person leaving the message feels is such, yet can only be the responsibility of those on the receiving end.

Of course, such responsibility shifts have multiplied further with the advent of email, voicemail, mobile phones, etc. Now, not only do we expect a response but we, more often than not, expect it in a time frame we have wrongly set for others. Without negotiation. Without agreement. A time that is generally and largely based upon our own response time and the expectations we place on ourselves. We, in general, mistakenly assume that everyone else is just like us. Therefore, if one is the sort of person who is always connected and reads and responds to email in minutes, we wrongly expect that everyone else is, or should be, doing the same.

But how do we counter this expectation? One way is to negotiate and set reasonable expectations for others. For example, in my last job, I let all of my coworkers know that I only looked at and responded to email twice a day for 1 hour. Once in the morning at 9am and then again at 4pm. Also, I set the email to manual checking so that, what I retrieved at those times was all I was going to see for an hour. If someone sent me an email at 4:15pm, I would not see it until 9am the next morning. It was the sort of job that took me away from my desk and the ability to check email easily so this agreement met with little resistance. It took a short time but, eventually, my coworkers learned that if it was something that required my immediate attention, the last thing they should do is send me an email. They called me on my mobile phone for urgent matters and questions instead and I, in turn, had less email to deal with and therefore could handle it in the allotted time frame.

While this may sound reasonable enough to do in a work environment, where one can address many people at once, in order for this to really work for everyone we communicate with is to have dozens of these little negotiations and agreements about how we handle all of our communications. Frankly, that is somewhat unreasonable. Must we help others with adjusting expectations on a near case by case basis? I mean, seriously, how does that scale?

Perhaps, instead, we should simply and collectively adjust our expectations of others. Perhaps we should all accept the responsibility that we are so easily and readily inclined to shirk upon others. And, maybe, just maybe, we should realize how valuable time itself is. How little of it we all have. Conversely, take the time to communicate to those important to you what they should reasonably expect. Maybe put it in your voicemail greeting or email signature. Replacing expectation and responsibility with compassion and understanding on all sides will reduce the stress of not knowing.

I don’t claim to have the answers to these questions. I simply have observations and the same struggles keeping up with the great expectations increasingly placed upon us all.