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Let It Go To Voicemail

There are just a handful of people whose telephone calls I immediately answer no matter what I am doing: my wife, my daughters, their husbands, and my elderly mother. To them I am always on call in case of emergency.

When colleagues, friends and clients dial my cellphone, I will pick up if I am not otherwise occupied. Since they are in my phone’s contact list, I know who will be on the other end of the line when I answer. You can guess my age because I still refer to it as “the line.”

I am up-to-date in one respect, though. If you are not in my contact list and I do not recognize your number, there is zero chance of getting me to answer before your call goes to voicemail.

I don’t understand why anybody these days would answer a call from an unknown caller. It doesn’t matter if the area code on caller ID says you are from my city or town. It doesn’t matter if the call is evidently coming from my alma mater or my local police department or the Internal Revenue Service or, for that matter, the Pentagon. Most of those organizations have no reason to call me; if they want to find me, they know my address. Well, in the Pentagon’s case they might have to look it up. But we have the world’s most capable armed forces, and I know they have access to the internet.

Besides, many calls – including most of the calls I receive on my cellphone – have spoofed numbers. Spoofing is mostly illegal when the call is placed from the United States. The Federal Communications Commission recently voted to ban the practice of spoofing numbers from overseas as well, which may cut down on some of the robocalls I get. Major U.S. phone carriers are also working on an authentication technique that would ensure callers have the right to use the number they are calling from. But my experience is that the best way to avoid robocalls on an individual level is to not answer the phone.

After all, this isn’t 1944. In those days, a phone might be situated in an apartment building hallway, shared among multiple families. When the phone rang, it was a summons: Someone might be getting news so urgent it couldn’t even wait for a messenger to deliver a telegram. (If you never experienced getting or sending a telegram, you can look it up.)

The phone’s centrality held strong in the postwar years. American homes evolved from having a single, wall-mounted rotary phone (often with a handset cord that, when uncoiled, could have doubled as the foul line at a baseball field) to convenient push-buttons and streamlined “princess” extensions in every bedroom. A ringing phone might mean a parent needed to know whether to pick up pizza for dinner, or it might bring news that the evening’s school play was canceled because of an outbreak of mumps. (If you never experienced the mumps, you can look it up.)

In the 1980s, telephone answering machines came into vogue. For my generation, having children came into vogue about the same time. When the inevitable sales call arrived during dinner, we could let the machine answer it or let the caller deal with my loquacious 4-year-old. Listening to the 4-year-old was more entertaining. (If you never experienced a 4-year-old answering the phone, you can look that up too.) So while call screening was possible and sometimes employed, it was a hit-and-miss approach. Someone still had to pick up the pizza.

But today? Pizza can come home via Dad, or Delivery Dudes (my favorite service to use in Fort Lauderdale) or any number of other online avenues. Critical mumps alerts arrive via text message – or at least they will if people keep skipping their immunizations and start getting the mumps again. And the human sales callers who used to have to deal with 4-year-olds have been replaced by robocallers, which are indifferent to the age or other personal details of the people whose time they waste. Humans only get involved in the call when the robots detect a live prospect at the other end of the line.

Why give them the opportunity? What good can possibly come of answering an unsolicited call? If there really is some worthwhile information to convey, the caller will leave a message. Your phone service provider is probably happy to transcribe that message and send it to you via email, so you need never actually miss a robocall, even if you never answer them. My experience has been that most calls don’t even result in a voicemail. They simply disappear without ever bothering me.

I have tried to persuade my mother not to answer her phone unless she recognizes the number, but it is an uphill fight. She was a teenager in 1944. To her, that familiar ring will always be a summons to receive news that is too urgent to wait for a telegram. But for the rest of us, ignoring that unknown caller is just common sense.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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