Voice Mail: ‘Yes’ in the US and ‘None’ in India?

Cultural differences can make a product/service hit or flop: Is it just a cultural issue that voicemails never picked up in India, a country with over 900 million cell phones?

Cultural differences can make a product/service hit or flop: Is it just a cultural issue that voicemails never picked up in India, a country with over 900 million cell phones?

Is it true that Indians do not like leaving voice mails or recording messages on a phone? A complete opposite of this situation exists in America, where people talk to each other through voice mails. Not many Americans can imagine communication without voice mails. It is a big part of both professional and personal communications in the US, be it communicating with clients, customers, employees, friends or loved ones— phone calls and voice mails are the best way to get a message across. Voicemails allow a person to leave a brief message without actually having to always connect to the other person directly. It is popularprobably because Americans accept the idea of respecting a person’s time and privacy, and the person receiving a voice message can always get back on the number left in a voicemail. Other times, when at meetings or in a building with poor cell phone receptions, voicemails allow one to catch those important calls you don’t want to miss. And if one does not leave a voicemail, the recipient often thinks that the call was not important or that the caller made a mistake.

Either way, the whole idea of voicemail seems to be well accepted, and Americans like their voicemails.

No wonder voice mails revolutionized the way America communicates. Starting with answering machines in 1970’s, they became a rage in the US. On the other hand, in India, answering machines never became a hit as compared to the West owing to Indian comfort levels with direct calling even as many of them may find re-calling a person or even texting more comfortable compared to leaving a voicemail. Perhaps the culture of leaving a voice message is still foreign to most Indians. It is not surprising to see many Indians struggling with recording a message as soon as they hear a beep on the answering machine. They would rather drop the phone call and call back! There are even instances of some Indians talking back to a recorded voice, thinking it is a “real person” on the line.

This non-voicemail culture gotten passed on to the cell phone-friendly generations in India. Cell phones became popular in the country during the late 90s, and they are a part and parcel of a huge number of Indian households today. There are several mobile service companies (starting around 2007) who offer affordable voicemail plans for cellphone users. But Indians are simply not inclined to using voicemail services. One of the reasons for low popularity of voicemails could be the high charges for message retrieval as against the convenience of making missed calls (popular as flash calls in America) and using text messages (also mostly free due to the popularity of chat apps available on Indian mobile phones) for they can be more informative/direct. On the other hand, text messages cost money for most U.S. cell phone services.

Just like in India, text messaging is popular with young adults and teenagers in America. It is hardly surprising to see that voice calling has not changed on on year-to-year basis for older generations in America. Cell owners, according to Pew Internet (a research firm), make or receive an average of 12.3 voice calls per day, with the median cell users engaging in five voice calls which hasn’t changed since 2010. Voice calling is most common with Americans, even as just 4% of cell owners say that they make or receive no voice calls on an average day. By comparison, 27% of adult cell owners do not use text messaging, even on an occasion. This is quite contrary to the Indian side of the story. There are over 900 million mobile users and 600 million unique mobile users (source: TOI) in India and very few voicemail subscribers. It is interesting to note how cultural differences can lead to the popularity and unpopularity of a product/service in two countries.

One trend in electronic messaging these days is integrating voice mail, e-mail, instant messaging etc. Skype, Whatsapp (with over 700 million users), Kakaotalk, Viber, WeChat, with over 3 bn users, and several others like Googlehangouts, Facebook messenger and other corporate online chat/e-mail/messaging services allow free voice mails and video chats for people to stay connected while at work or at home.

Why do you think Indians shy away from voice mails? Share your thoughts with me.

Sanjay Puri has been working on Indian-American issues and facilitating stronger US-India relations through USINPAC (US India Political Action Committee and AUSIB (Alliance for US India Business), two bipartisan organizations that he chairs.

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