Why People Don’t Use Voice Mail in China

People in China don’t use calendar as often as United States. I talked about it in a blog entry back in 2005: Do You Have a Calendar?. I also talked about Why Classified is NOT Popular in China, Yet. Today, I want to talk about another thing about absolutely no people in China use today. That is voice mail.

Chinese is Unique? No

Four years ago, when I just joined eBay, and had the golden opportunity to witness the fight between eBay and Taobao from an inside on the eBay side. During many in-depth discussion with Meg Whitman when she was in Shanghai, I tried very hard to convince her that China is different. China has a unique culture, unique history, and unique user behavior, and we should treat China very differently.

Four years later, when I analyze what happened around me, I more and more tend to agree that people are very like each other across the world, and by nature, they are the same. The different behavior comes from different history. Taking the eBay example, people in both China and US want the website to be fast and stable, and eBay’s problem is, it is not fast and stable in China as in US (and in US, not as fast and stable as Google).

So, let’s discuss about why people in China don’t use voice mail.

How Voice Mail Started

The voice mail started in most countries from 1970s, to 1980s, when there is no such a thing called Internet, or mobile phone. From today’s point of view, voice mail is more like a a asynchronous pull-mode mobile phone. In contrast, mobile phone is synchronous, push mode; SMS is asynchronous, push mode, and email is asynchronous pull mode.

With voice mail, although there are no technologies like mobile phone, it is impossible to reach a person at any time, and voice mail is a not perfect, but working solution. So voice mail became so popular that the current generate grow up with voice mail recorder at home, and in office.

Today, when there is mobile phone, SMS, email, or even Skype, the user behavior changed in United States, and Europe, but slowly. Voice mail still plays an important role, before it fade out from the history scene.

Voice Mail Just Missed a Historical Chance

In China, fixed line telephone itself has never become as popular as the States. When I was young, let’s say, early 1990s, the telephone number for my city was still 4 digits (FYI, in 2005, it became 8 digits). In China, when people start to use phone, they jump start from mobile phone. Many cities just started from mobile phone without fixed line phone installed.

With this background, Voice Mail seems to be a stupid thing. There are 6 billion mobile phone users, you literally can reach any people in this country if you know his/her mobile phone number. Mobile phone means instant talking (Yes! With Interruption!)

The usage of mobile phone also shape people’s behavior. People would like to take mobile phone immediately and people love to have instant interact, and don’t care about interruption as much as people in the States. In a era when the people first used instant messaging like QQ, mobile phones that go with them, they don’t use voice mail any more.

There are Many Examples

Email appeared before SMS, but SMS is more convenient. That is the reason why email is not popular and people use SMS all the time. Blackberry is something attractive for non-corporate people in China. Offline classified? Before Internet, there is still a chance, but when Internet comes, the newspaper based classified that didn’t take off, permanently lose the opportunity to grow bigger.

Is this something called “Late Mover Advantage”?

18 thoughts on “Why People Don’t Use Voice Mail in China

  1. Jianshuo,

    You are right, I agree with your analysis about the voice mail. I registered the voice mail feature for my mobile account. And there are so many times, people called me but don’t leave any voice in the box if I missed the call for some reason. Almost a whole year, I got only two voice mail, one is from real estate agent and another is from my girlfriend who was convinced by me to use voice mail.

    – Jack

  2. Beyond voicemail, your comment on people being fundamentally the same despite coming from different markets and cultures resonates strongly with my feelings after 10 years across Asia. I even turned this idea into a company :-)

    Thanks for your great posts and looking forward to future ones!

  3. Jianshuo, I have to say I disagree that the reason China doesn’t use voicemail is that it has leapfrogged an older technology. Or at least, it’s not that simple. The only thing that makes it possible for China to not use voicemail is a cultural acceptance that it’s not impolite to answer a phone call in almost any situation. I have seen people giving formal presentation in a conference interrupt themselves to take a phone call, which is unimaginable in the States. In the U.S., it’s still considered rude to interrupt a conversation you’re having with someone (at least at work) to take a cell phone call, and there are many more situations (driving, for example) in which you are expected not to answer. In a cultural situation like this, to not have voicemail is very inconvenient. Without voicemail, you then frequently run into situations in which people are trading phone calls trying to reach each other (phone tag.) It’s true that SMS/MMS helps a lot in this, and now that Americans (I can’t speak for Europe) are texting more it’s possible that voicemail will gradually fade. But I prefer the situation in which face-to-face communication is made a higher priority than an incoming call, so I would be sad to see it completely disappear.

  4. I am curious about your saying.. people in China don’t use calendars. So how they work and manage time ? Are they really live in a stone age where time past by itself ????

    Sometime I don’t undertand about your posting, but after reading the comments from your readers only I know what you try to say or mean. Appologise for that.

  5. voice mail? i am not accustomed to it because i don’t like to talk as if i were talking to myself againist the wall.

  6. Here are my two cents on voice mail:

    People in India also do not use Voice mail (while we did not exactly leap into mobile technology, our landlines never had voice mails). Two reasons for this:

    Most people use mobiles and if you call a number and the owner is not able to take the call, it gets recorded as a missed call. Most people return back calls to missed call numbers. Giving Missed calls is FREE!

    Leaving Voice mail costs money, and I have never seen any one check their voice mails any which ways. Thus no point of using it. However, If I call a colleague in US, I will leave a voice message, since I know for sure that he/she will check her voice messages.

    Is their a late mover advantage?

    I guess any product that provides for convenience (above an existing product) has a advantage. In this case, SMS gives instant accessibility courtsey the high mobile penetration.



  7. I just called someone’s mobile in China, and got the message that they were not available. Fortunately in English as well as Chinese! But it is funny to hear, since in the US you would get the voicemail.

    I’ve heard that one reason for lack of voicemail is related to the fact that landlines never really took off. For example, in an office, 20 people may have shared one phone. So having a voicemail on that phone doesn’t necessarily make sense.

  8. this is a matter of culture evolution… but not a culture as mentioned by ddjiii.

    Voice mail was introduction in late 70s and early 80s. And it evolve to other messaging system like pager. This technology were introduced and widely use in developed country. And you can say that, it also turn to be a pop culture of having a pager.

    In that era, how many people in China has phone? Was voice mail introduce to the public? Not to say how many people can afford a pager in the era. I guess the answer is few… and maybe the service was not available.

    So, basically China has missed the boat and did not “participate” in this culture evolution.

    Take another example as in music. If you grow up in the 70s you might know the names like “Village People”, “Chicago”, “Donny Osmond”, “Mungo Jerry” etc and know how to sing all their songs. How many people in the grow up in 90s know these singer? maybe a few or maybe none.

  9. Basically, in mainland, less people use voice mail.

    but, as I know in HK, there are most people use voice mail.

  10. I totally agree with ddjiii.

    There are many reasons that using voice mails are better. For example

    – The line is busy. Say your boss, your wife, and your client called around the same time.

    – You turned off your phone, or set the ring tone to be silent because: you are at an important meeting or a class, or an interview, or you went to bed… you don’t want to be interrupted, and/or appear to be rude to other people, but yet, you’ll still be able to know what the calls are about immediately after. Voice mail gives you the option to prioritize your activities.

    – You can not hear the ring, because you are surrounded by loud music, in a noisy market, in a bar. Voice mail helps you to catch up.

    – Your phone battery is dead, your phone is just broken, or your net coverage is not very well, say you were hiking at mountainy areas.

    – Some informational messages that are not time-critical and no need for personal response. For example, your kid’s school wants to let you know the school is closed the next day due to snow, rain, swine flu etc.

    – Text messaging is much slower and less personal. And you can not SMS from or to a fixed-line phone!

    Ok, this is my own experience, I immigrate to US from China about 10 years ago. All my peers, the graduate students back then, were not used to voice mails. In a matter of a year or a few of months, All of us could not do without. Now I own my own office line, home phone, cell phone, and I can still not do without voice mails. It is just convenient.

  11. Server problems today? Comments getting lost? I tried twice to post this afternoon, both failed…assertion error I believe

  12. Globally, without any attention to race, the type of people you can “always get in touch with” are the type of people who are addicted to their phone, as a form of novelty entertainment. You always get them because they’re always wanting to use their phone, if it’s not already in their hands. Whether China is generally like that, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t doubt it. Koreans are always on their fuckin phones, too.. so it’s probably the Asian version of “Keeping-Up-With-The-Jones” .. (Keeping up with the Zhangs?)

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