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The Hole in the Loop

Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page D02

The cry of lost souls echoes through the electronic wilderness: "I can't reach a human being! I have to talk to an actual person! What can I do to reach a human being?"

This desperation does not go unheeded. There is always a soothing response:

"Your call is important to us."

"Click on Frequently Asked Questions."

"Please listen to the following options."

"For assistance, visit our Web site."

"All of our operators are busy assisting other customers."

"Oh, no, they're not!" the exasperated customer shouts into the void. "There are no such operators. You put your customers in an endless loop, going from one recording to another until they get back to the beginning -- if anyone can make it back before getting cut off. And don't tell me about your Web site, which never responds to my questions, if it responds at all. There's no human being running that. It sends me the answer to a question I didn't ask -- sometimes days after I didn't ask it."

Miss Manners' inclination is to pour out her sympathy. It is a plight that surely falls under her mandate of comforting those afflicted by the callousness of others. Besides, like everyone else, she has been caught in such fruitless loops.

In the etiquette business, we are forever carrying on about the need for a personal touch, however much of a burden it is to put pen to paper instead of firing off a preselected message. (Anyone who has ever sent a sympathy card instead of writing a condolence letter, or a thank-you note with little more than the rote "Thank you for the . . . " message, loses the right to criticize businesses for sending standardized responses.)

Etiquette's prejudice for the personal is commonly mistaken for a blanket antipathy toward technology, and indeed toward progress itself. Such is not the case. Miss Manners cannot bear to fire her horse, but she believes it would be exciting to risk a horseless carriage after he retires.

She is on record as having been first to defend such useful appliances as the telephone answering machine (when others were decrying people who "screened their calls" instead of leaving this door open all the time) and the cellular telephone (which is still being condemned as show-offy, although most of the population now has them). Naturally, Miss Manners demands that these items be used politely, as she does in connection with everything from kid gloves to hockey sticks. When they are not, she blames the misuser rather than the tool.

And now she is going to become the only consumer to defend recorded messages. But at least she promises to do this in a halfhearted way.

Not everything needs talking over. Many questions can be predicted. Properly programmed, recorded voice messages can be faster and more accurate than people. They don't call you by your first name. They don't recognize your voice if you call back too often.

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