Maybe Don’t Send That Voice Note

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Written By Pinang Driod

My phone alerts me as I’m eating lunch that the next 150 seconds of my life have been hijacked: I’ve received a voice note. The sender is my friend’s 23-year-old sister, Wendi Gjata, who is notorious for dispatches that veer so far from their supposed topic that the listener can only guess at their original purpose. After an indulgent 20-second preamble, Wendi finally gets to the point and responds to my inquiry about her favorite way to message: “I’m here to explain why voice memos suck,” she says cheerily, “while demonstrating it actively.”

Voice notes have been around, in some form, for more than a decade. WeChat rolled out the ability to send these voicemail-like audio missives in 2011, WhatsApp followed two years later, and Apple’s iMessages joined the party in 2014. But in recent years, they’ve become incredibly popular. According to a 2023 poll for Vox, about a third of Americans use them at least weekly. In 2022, WhatsApp reported that its users sent a daily average of 7 billion voice memos. Months later, The Wall Street Journal declared 2022 “The Year of the Voice Message.” Devotees can now use them to communicate professionally on Slack and Microsoft Teams, or unprofessionally on dating apps such as Hinge, where, a representative told me, voice-note usage jumped by 34 percent last year.

Despite the boom in bespoke monologues, many people would still prefer a call or a text. Whereas texts force senders to condense their thoughts into writing, voice notes let people “just babble, babble, babble, rant, rant, rant,” Wendi explained. On the phone, callers can interject, ask clarifying questions, and generally talk with, rather than at, each other. Voice-note recipients “just have to sit there and listen,” as Wendi put it, whether the message is about travel logistics or oatmeal toppings. If they have any hope of replying effectively, they must either memorize the message or commence note-taking. (By default, iMessage deletes audio shortly after it’s played and doesn’t transcribe it.) The best conversations are an exchange. But with voice notes, “you’re making it about you—just like I’m making it about me right now,” Wendi said. “To let you know … I’m going to Amsterdam this weekend! So exciting!”

In their extravagance, voice memos seem to encourage selfishness. One comic anti-voice-note anthem on YouTube opens with the verse “When it comes to communication / there’s a new fad going round / that says, ‘My time is more important than yours / and I love the way that I sound!’” (The singers specify just two people from whom they’d welcome these types of messages: Morgan Freeman and David Attenborough.) On Reddit, hundreds of users have bemoaned how these mini-podcasts are lazy and inconsiderate, burdening the receiver for the convenience of the sender. But when you consider the medium’s constraints, many of the most ridiculed qualities of voice notes—such as their length and incomprehensibility—become more understandable. iMessage doesn’t have a time limit, for instance, or any way to edit messages down.

As with any newer technology, people haven’t yet agreed on a set of norms, which adds to the contentiousness, Sylvia Sierra, a communications professor at Syracuse University, told me. Among some people, voice notes have developed a reputation for being long-winded and perilous, while others fire them off without a second thought, baffling their future audience. For example, Wendi recently received a six-minute memo that didn’t contain anything substantial enough to respond to. So she shot back, “Hey, thanks for including me in that thought process. Anyways …” and then went on her own rant. Without the constraints of a text or call, a potential conversation devolved into an autobiographical face-off.

Still, these soliloquy exchanges tend to make Wendi feel closer to her friends than texting does—especially now that she’s studying abroad, far away from them. Hearing someone’s voice is intimate. In professional settings, research has found that when people write and speak the same message, the spoken version tends to make them sound warmer and even more intelligent. Amit Kumar, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that he suspects voice notes help people bond more than just texting does, because hearing someone’s intonation and patterns of speech can make us feel like we understand them better.

The key to using voice notes gracefully, then, might be finding the right time and place. They seem to work best when the subject is idiosyncratic—and decidedly not urgent. Recently, my dad sent my entire family a clip of him mumble-singing, “Oh I love it and I hate it at the same time,” from the hit song “Daylight.” I appreciated the message even though I had no idea why he sent it: Its pointlessness was the point, captured perfectly by a voice memo. Sometimes, in a group chat, a friend’s personal psychodrama is most compellingly relayed with the rhetorical flourishes of a recording. Natahlia Carr, a copywriter living in Atlanta, told me that her friends sometimes send clips of themselves laughing in lieu of a less vibrant “lol.” Plus, voice notes have practical benefits. They cut out the trouble of scheduling a time to call for those who want to hear their friends’ and family members’ voices but live in different time zones. And for people with certain disabilities, voice notes can be a more convenient way to send and receive messages.

That’s the case for my friend Juna Gjata—Wendi’s older sister—who is blind and sends me more of these memos than anyone else I know. Considering this, I was surprised when she told me that she tends to find voice notes irritating. She likes the audio itself. She often uses voice-to-text technology anyway to read texts, and would much rather hear a person than a robot. But she gets annoyed when people start to treat voice memos as permission to communicate in the least efficient way possible. The main culprit in her life? Her sister.

Wendi, though, maintains that her sister loves her messages. “I’ll let you in on a secret,” she told me. A few weeks ago, she listened to Juna’s pleas and stopped sending over her most vapid nine-minute reports. When Juna asked later why she had barely heard from her sister, Wendi revealed that she’d been exercising restraint—and Juna made her promise to resume the rants. Juna seemed to understand that our closest relationships are built not on economical exchange, but on shared amusement over life’s minutiae: mediocre take-out pad Thai, a friendly exchange with the mailman, the huge decorative skeleton that a neighbor has kept up since Halloween. As much as we struggle for coherence in our lives, we often end up with nonsense. Voice notes, bothersome as they can be, capture that well.


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