THE telephone answering machine, with its panoply of knobs, switches, and instruction pamphlets in charmingly unintelligible Japanese-English, is clearly here to stay. Although it has spawned some dubious offspring, such as the disembodied voice that invades our homes with a brisk ring and a mechanized sales pitch, it has also produced an unexpected dividend. The machine's recorded ``outgoing message'' throws an intriguing spotlight on the quirks and foibles of our fellow citizens, enabling us in a space-age reversal of Robert Burns to see others as they see themselves. There are remarkable differences between the way people present themselves electronically and their actual personalities, as it were, offstage.
For example, one of my neighbors in a Santa Barbara beach complex is a retired sea captain, in person a crusty curmudgeon bearing a chip on each burly shoulder. But when taping his message he metamorphoses suddenly into Mr. Nice Guy. ``Thank you so much for calling,'' he purrs silkily. ``We deeply regret any inconvenience caused by our absence, but would be happy to return your call.'' This is Surly Sid?
In sharp contrast is my sometime tennis partner Serge, a peripatetic wheeler-dealer who is constantly en route to Brazil or Switzerland, leaving his machine to cope with his erratic social life. At a dinner party, Serge is all chatty warmth, brimming over with tales of the Istanbul bazaar and the Australian outback. But put him in front of his ``outgoing message'' mike and he turns into the Scarlet Pimpernel, a monosyllabic creature of mystery and evasion: ``Hello. Please state your message. Goodbye.''
For a similar dark-side-of-the-moon glimpse into hidden aspects of personality, I offer an academic friend, a popular lecturer who on the collegiate platform is the personification of outgoing self-confidence. What is his taped message to the world? It starts on a note of unease: ``This is Gabriel - uh, I mean Professor Gabriel Adams - actually, a record...'' and proceeds rapidly downhill: ``....who isn't available right now. Not here. But will be. So please don't go away,'' to utter disintegration: ``So all you have to do is your number - I mean, why you're calling. Your name, and I'll have Gabriel call you right back.'' A vast sigh. ``Now, that's not asking too much, is it?'' He rambles on for a few seconds, until the rest of his recital is mercifully obliterated by a loud end-of-tape whistle.
This apologetic motif turns up surprisingly often. I feel a twinge of sympathy for the real estate agent across town who comes on: ``Hello, there! This is Sally. I'm so glad to hear from you [how does she know it isn't a bill collector, or the IRS?], and so sorry I'm not at home to receive your call. But I'll be back, I promise. And I do want to talk to you....''
The please-forgive-me school reaches its zenith in this local gem: ``Hello! Now, don't go getting mad and hanging up on me. I'm just a little machine. It's not my fault if Deirdre isn't home. But if you'll whisper your name in my ear, I'll see that she calls you right away.''
For a refreshing switch I give you the lady novelist who announces the number the caller has reached, then moves directly to the wrap-up: ``At the sound of the tone, you're on your own!'' And for sheer good humor I have to admire the young woman who acknowledges her own amiable garrulousness this way: ``Hello from Debbie. You will now have the unique opportunity to speak to me for 30 full seconds without being interrupted.''
Currently in vogue in Santa Barbara is the musical message, which has expanded from an acappella solo chirp to duets backed by a four-piece combo. Grandiose Hollywood celebrities may wind up employing the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I admit to a pioneering role in this trend, having launched my own outgoing tape some years ago with a reasonably jaunty piano performance of a few bars from ``Somebody Loves Me.''
But that was only after considerable experimentation. When I first bought an answering machine, I discovered that most people suddenly confronted with a recording reacted in panic. Not relishing the prospect of a chat with an invisible robot, and lacking the facile reflexes of a radio talk-show host, they mumbled a few words, then trailed off into silence. Others simply hated the machine. They said so, and hung up.
My first move to appease callers was to replace the stodgy manufacturer's message with a customized text that began: ``Greetings. By accident or design, you have reached Regent 4-1890....'' As the machine gained acceptance, I toyed with variations. At long last I have settled for blunt efficiency: ``Hi. If you're calling Ted, you're on target - but I'm off base.'' Apart from a mild complaint or two about mixed sports metaphors, this seems to do the job.
But I must confess to vague apprehensions about the future. Will the art of conversation, already badly battered by the television habit, ultimately be reduced to exchanges between two elaborately programmed machines, where I press the ``Hello, Henry'' button and Henry's finger triggers back a crisp ``Good morning''? In my worrisome fantasy I then respond with my No. 5 button, the regulation ``How ya doin'?'' that passes for a salutation in southern California. He replies with a prerecorded comment on our incomparable weather; I come right back with a tribute to the Los Angeles Dodgers (or the Lakers, depending on the season), and Henry closes out the dialogue with a hearty if slightly echo-chambered ``Have a nice day.''
Something to look forward to. Or is it?