Q: Is there any escape from all the useless prompts (send a numeric page, leave a callback number, blah blah blah) I have to sit through before leaving a voice-mail message on somebody's cell phone?

Q: Is there any escape from all the useless prompts (send a numeric page, leave a callback number, blah blah blah) I have to sit through before leaving a voice-mail message on somebody's cell phone?

A: The total time wasted by these instructions, which play after a person's recorded greeting, could add up to millions of hours a year. Are the conspiracy theorists correct to think that these options exist only to run up people's airtime?

Representatives for AT&T Wireless, Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless all said that enough customers use and appreciate the other options to justify their existence, but they did not provide usage statistics to document that contention. (T-Mobile did not answer these questions.)

The publicists did, however, describe how to skip both a voice-mail greeting and the prompts after it by pressing the right key on your phone. If you're calling an AT&T subscriber, pressing "0" will usually let you start recording your message right away; with a Sprint customer, press "1"; for a Verizon user, use the asterisk key; and when phoning a T-Mobile subscriber, hit the number key.

Because each of these companies somehow managed to pick a different shortcut key, you can do callers a favor by reminding them of the right button to press in your greeting.

Sprint users also can change their voice-mail settings to inflict one fewer prompt on callers. Call your voice mail from your phone, press 3 to enter the "personal options" menu, press 1 to change your settings, then press 6 to deactivate the "leave a callback number" prompt. Your friends will thank you.