“Hi?” I say awkwardly. The little microphone icon flashes red while I scramble to think of something to say.
I spend ten whole minutes agonising over how best to reply to an audio message I have just received via WhatsApp, the popular mobile messaging service used by more than two billion people around the globe. Most people have heard of WhatsApp, but I’ve never used the voice note function before and frankly, I’m finding it a little nerve-wracking. The audio feature (which has become something of a phenomenon in recent times) is most definitely for those who are comfortable with the sound of their own voice.
Simplicity itself, the user has only to press and hold the record button for the duration of the message which is automatically sent as soon as you release. Alternatively, you can swipe left to delete if you are less than happy with your effort. “The number of taps matters. People want to send a message and be on their way,” said Whatsapp founder Jan Koum in 2013, the concept of “streamlined” always at the forefront of his mind. Streamlined, yes, idiot-proof even, but not easy. We have become so accustomed to texting that the sound of our own voice can scare us.
Years ago, before the mobile phone became the mainstay of our lives, we used to cheerfully leave long rambling messages on people’s answerphone machines connected to their landlines. But we have become shy sharers. Research (and common experience) shows that the phone call has been in steady decline for years as texting became our preferred means of communication. You can see why we took to it with such alacrity – no getting dragged into conversations you don’t want to and can be sent at any time.
Given our aversion to picking up the phone, how do we explain the rising popularity of voice notes? “I’ve definitely used voice notes a lot more since lockdown,” says 27-year-old senior management consultant Chae, who, like me, moved here from Sydney almost two years ago. “Because I’m basically not seeing anyone, I’ve been using it with my friends in the UK as well as with my friends in Australia,” she says.
“Especially for my friends who are lonely or need someone to talk to, I think it’s a nice way to take in how they actually are. I know for a fact that it helps some of my friends feel like I’m next to them,” she adds.
While there is no hard data yet about the increase of voice notes during lockdown, anecdotally they seem to be playing an important role in helping many of us stay connected during these troubling times. And like Chae, I appreciate their warmth, especially during this most recent lookdown which I have found particularly tough. Most of my friends and family live in Australia so their voice notes are received with an extra pinch of gratitude at this lonely time. While efficient, the text is a fairly rudimentary, throwaway tool. The voice note feels so much more loving and can stem the insidious effects of isolation during this social Sahara.
More generally, audio seems to be on the rise. The pandemic has spawned a proliferation of podcasts and seen the emergence of Clubhouse, the invitation-only audio-based social media app. The sound of another human voice offers the intimacy so absent in our lives right now. Professor Silke Paulmann of the University of Essex suggests that we prefer voice notes because they bring us closer to other people, even “giving you an insight into their emotional wellbeing.”
Her research focuses on how socio-psychological variables (e.g. power, motivation) can influence how emotions and attitudes are communicated through tone of voice. “If someone is nervous, or if you can hear that someone is upset, but they’re still saying “No, I’m fine,” you’d be able to pick up on that, whereas in a text message, you would lose all of that information.
“What our research consistently shows is that within 200 milliseconds, we recognise how someone feels, even if we don’t know them,” she adds.
The power of the voice cannot be underestimated. Active listening is a tool deliberately employed by therapists to build rapport with their clients. A 2020 study in the Psychotherapy and Counselling Journal of Australia highlighted how telephone counsellors regularly attempt to accurately identify their client’s emotional state “through active listening to the client’s voice”.
Tone of voice provides critical clues and can even be a powerful predictor of marital success. An algorithm created by researchers at the University of Southern California in 2015 accurately predicted whether a married couple’s relationship improved or worsened over time, based on their tone of voice when speaking to each other.
And yet some, myself included, are skittish about recording voice notes. Feeling self-conscious and losing one’s train of thought are key concerns. “I find them a bit too awkward. I always lose focus and never know how to end or wrap up a message,” says Thomas, a 28-year-old Boston based engineer.
Others may find that the voice note simply reveals too much. “I actually think that some people might want to have text messages as a protective barrier,” says Paulmann. “It’s easier to quickly just type “No, all good,” as opposed to, you know, using the phone and revealing something about yourself that you may not want to share. So, in this pandemic, I think we have a lot of things to keep an eye on.” Unlike texts, voice notes can betray our true emotional state and we might not want our family and friends to know that we are feeling lonely or depressed; we might think that we ought to be coping better than we are.
Whether you live alone or with friends or family, much of the last year has been spent online with our phones as a constant companion. While it is difficult to predict the future, the recent announcement from the Government about the path out of lockdown has provided some light at the end of the tunnel (thanks science). We can begin to imagine the day when our voice notes are of a different nature: inviting friends to parties, office gossip, drunken rants from heaving bars or even ‘there’s a three for two on Malbec at Oddbins.’ Our voice notes will be less ‘I hope you’re holding up ok’ and more ‘look forward to seeing you later for dinner.’ I just need to get the hang of them first!
Words by Camilla Patini
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