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.''