As a pre-teen in the mid-’90s, my best friend’s voice was basically the soundtrack to my life (along with Janet Jackson’s janet. album, of course.) As soon as I got home from school, I’d pick up the landline, dial her number from memory, and sprawl out in the front foyer hashing out the dramas of middle school until dinnertime.
All that changed a few years later. Once the advent of AOL Instant Messenger rolled around, the sounds of a dial-up modem and clackety keyboard quickly replaced the ring of the phone and boy-crazy chatter at my place. And today? I sometimes go weeks without actually listening to my besties speak, communicating with them solely through texts. As a freelancer who works from home, I’ve never heard the majority of my coworkers’ voices—we talk all day long, but it’s strictly through Slack and email. Oh, and when a Bumble match recently rang me to set up a first date, I was so caught off-guard that I almost didn’t answer. (A phone call from someone other than my mom? Is that even legal?)
It seems we’ve reached peak SMS and are now heading back in a more human direction—at least if the rise of the voice memo is any indication.
Obviously, this is a sad state of affairs, and I’m certainly not the only one who conducts the majority of my conversations through a smartphone screen. (Texting is the dominant form of communication for those under 50, according to a recent Gallop poll.) But it seems we’ve reached peak SMS and are now heading back in a more human direction—at least if the rise of the voice memo is any indication.
Although voice messaging has been huge for a while now in other parts of the world—particularly Asia and Latin America—it’s only recently started to catch on in English-speaking countries, thanks to the fact that you can now send voice memos through just about every texting platform, and even some dating apps. I received my first voice memo late last year from my high-school friend, Amanda. (Yeah, I’m not exactly an early tech adopter.) A 36-year-old mom and entrepreneur with her own supplement business, she was checking in via Facebook Messenger to see if I received an order I’d placed with her. “Voice messages make my daily interactions with clients so much more personal,” she told me when I asked why she prefers talk to text. “Being able to truly hear someone’s tone, inflection, and personality through their voice is much more intimate than typed words.”
According to WhatsApp, 200 million voice memos are sent via its messenger platform daily.
Zen, 28, agrees with this sentiment, adding that voice memos are way more convenient for her than texting. “When speaking a different language—in my case, Arabic—it is quicker and easier to speak rather than type, especially since the Arabic dictionary made available on Android and iOS is formal Arabic, not dialectical,” says the New York City-based gallery assistant. She’s been sending voice notes to her friends via WhatsApp for about five years now. (The company says 200 million voice messages are sent on its platform daily.) “I stare at a computer for eight hours a day, so the last thing I want to do is stare at another screen.”
It’s not surprising that voice messaging is catching on, says Thom Gencarelli, PhD, a communications professor at Manhattan College. “[Researchers] Jay David Bolter and Richard Gruisin argued that all new media borrow from and extend, or refashion, the media that come before them—particularly media that come immediately before them,” he explains. In this case, says Dr. Gencarelli, voice memo technology combines what most of us consider the best parts of texting—its brevity and its ability to protect us from the potential discomfort of real-time, face-to-face conversation—with the fact that verbalizing our thoughts is “our original and most important means of communicating.”
Practicality’s obviously one part of its appeal. “It’s great because I can do other things while listening to a voice note,” Zen points out. It’s also more seamless and less formal than calling someone and leaving a voicemail—besides, no one even checks their voicemail anymore. But as voice messaging catches on further, it could also have some positive implications for our wellbeing.
Poppy Jamie, mental health advocate and founder of mindfulness app Happy Not Perfect, believes that voice messaging has the potential to create more closeness in our relationships. “I think the rise of voice notes shows we’re wanting to connect more authentically, sincerely, and emotionally with each other,” she says. “Being able to deliver messages using the voice means the receiver can understand the sentiment behind it. Text messages allow so much room for interpretation that they can be misread in a dangerous way—and anything that can [increase] stress and anxiety levels is detrimental to our overall health.” Indeed, a recent study showed that listening to someone speak is the most effective way to read that person’s emotions, even more so than studying their facial expressions.
A recent study showed that listening to someone speak is the most effective way to read that person’s emotions, even more so than studying their facial expressions.
Voice memos may even have an unexpected edge over phone calls and face-to-face convos. As Dr. Gencarelli points out, they can lead us to be more mindful of the way we’re delivering our own messages, allowing us to respond from a place of thoughtfulness rather than reactivity. “You know how we’re always taught: Think before you speak? We don’t do that,” he says. “But, say you record a memo. And perhaps you listen to it before you send it, but you don’t like what you said or how you’ve said it. So you scrap that one, and re-record it. Then you send it and your friend takes her time composing her response exactly in the way you did. The point is that this becomes an entirely new way of communicating.”
That said, there’s a fine line between choosing your words carefully and filtering yourself in the name of perfectionism—the latter of which cancels out the in-the-moment spontaneity that makes lots of voice notes so great. (Kind of like a verbal version of Facetuning your selfies.) Plus, there’s the fact that voice messaging still requires us to be on our phones. And the speed and ease which we can converse back and forth via voice may mean that we actually end up checking our devices more frequently, which is concerning considering that phone addiction and separation anxiety are already very real things. (A recent study showed that being glued to our phones has similar effect on us as substance abuse.)
To listen to your voice memos on the go, you’ll need a pair of stylish headphones—we’ve got you covered. And try this $5 hack to make holding your phone a little healthier.
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