Voicemail and phone calls are dead. That’s the way it should be.
There’s little to mourn in the countless awkward annoyances embedded into those most hellish forms of modern communication. But that doesn’t mean all audio-based messaging deserves to die in the digital age.
The voice message (aka voice texts, voice notes, or voice memos) is to voicemail what texting is to email: It’s the more efficient, immediate, informal, and intimate evolution of its outdated predecessor. These short audio clips exchanged over text threads, whether in iMessage, Android Messages, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp, are like a high-tech iteration of the walkie talkie.
It’s also the single most underrated and misunderstood mode of digital communication that Americans are missing out on. And we need to fix that.
It’s the single most underrated and misunderstood mode of digital communication.
For years now, the superiority of voice messaging has been widely known across various other major countries. The Verge reported that in 2014, just a year after the feature was introduced on WhatsApp, a whopping 200 million voice messages were being sent daily by the app’s largely international user base. In China, 6.1 billion audio messages were sent in 2017 via WeChat (the country’s equivalent to WhatsApp), according to the Guardian. Audio messaging is also commonplace if not preferred in places like Argentina and throughout Europe.
But I’m here to tell you that the millions (if not billions) of people who love voice messaging aren’t delusional. In all likelihood, you’re just doing it wrong. And if you’re not using voice texts, you’re ignoring a more convenient, at times safer, and more intimate way of instant messaging.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for voice messaging to replace video chat or written texts. The best version of an audio texting utopia works in conjunction with other modes of communication, each used in the appropriate situation.
The best way to view voice texting in relation to normal texting is as a special-use tool deployed sparingly for practicality (like while driving) or when tone matters. Overuse of voice notes is not only infuriating for the receiver, but also saturates the power of its unique intimacy.
Still, many of you likely remain turned off by the idea of voice messaging because of its distant relationship to the scourge of voicemail. But let me reassure you that there are rules of etiquette in place for audio messaging that prevents it from falling victim to the horrors of voicemail.
Some rules of thumb include:
Keep it brief, typically no more than 15 seconds to a minute long max. If you haven’t disabled your screen lock time, be warned your phone may switch to the lock screen while you’re in the middle of recording a message. Maddeningly this deletes your voice message altogether, but also unwittingly leaves long-winded types rambling at a black screen.
Be considerate of your surroundings and situation, as well as that of the receiver. No one wants to listen to you waste their time with a bunch of crosstalk because you’re voice messaging while checking out at a store.
Similarly, don’t use voice text when you know the receiver is in a meeting, movie, dinner, or any loud or involved environment really. Those are all times when the ease of use from texting is more appropriate.
Don’t ever use voice notes to relay instructions, directions, dates, event details, phone numbers, or addresses. That’s also what texting was made for.
Of course, some might ignore these unspoken courtesies in the same way others have annoying texting habits. But blame the messenger, not the medium.
The best of both worlds
Less intense than a FaceTime yet more personal than an SMS, the voice message finds the middle grounded between the pros and cons of texting versus video chatting.
Its major advantage over the phone or video call is the benefit of asynchronous messaging, which is what makes texting so convenient. In other words, you can respond to each other’s voice texts at your own pace and on your own time, rather than needing to be available at the same time like you do in order to Facetime.
Apart from this just being practical, asynchronous communication is also one of the many reasons why voice messaging is ideal for keeping in touch with someone who’s long-distance and in a different time zone.
But that’s far from its biggest convenience factor.
One of the main reasons people give for preferring voice over text messaging is how much easier and quicker it is to hold down a button to record, say your piece, then send it off. In a modern world driven by multitasking, voice notes let you easily send messages while walking or driving. It’s less cognitively demanding than texting, and way more reliable than dictating to Siri.
Convenience alone wouldn’t make voice messaging the superior mode of modern communication, though. Its greatest value over texting comes down to intimacy.
Once more, but with feeling
It’s no secret that texting is an infuriatingly imperfect if not destructively impersonal way to convey your feelings. On top of typos, the total lack of important context clues like tone and body language make it a hotbed for miscommunications with potentially disastrous consequences.
Meanwhile, a recent UC Berkeley study found that the human voice alone is capable of expressing a vast range of 24 different emotions. You don’t have to spend a full minute sweating over whether or not you’re using enough or too many exclamation points in a voice message. You don’t have to lose sleep at night wondering if that period means that your friend is mad at you, either.
So much of a person is communicated through their voice.
Aside from more straightforward communication, hearing a person’s message through audio rather than just seeing it relayed in a series of words and emoji makes you feel closer to them. A lot of a person is communicated through their voice. So much so that people are now even using voice notes to screen the personalities of potential online dates.
Again, this makes voice notes especially useful for loved ones trying to stay connected across different time zones.
There’s no comparison to waking up to a voice message that lets you hear all the quirks, emotions, and personality embedded into a loved one’s unique intonations. Add the fact that, many times, you’re listening to their voice message through headphones and it can truly feel like they’re right there next to you.
Some might argue that, if closeness was the goal, then a video message or chat would be the most optimal. In theory that might be true, but in practice the added pressure, effort, and inconvenience required for video makes you far less likely to do that over a voice note. You can finally get your mom to stop saying you don’t call enough by simply sending her a quick voice text and she can do the same for you. And I can’t emphasize this enough, you get to respond to whenever you want.
Another key factor in the added intimacy of voice texts is that (on the iPhone at least), they automatically delete a few minutes after they’re listened to.
Of course, you can always save a particularly touching voice note you want to listen to again whenever you want. But on the whole, giving voice messages a quick expiration heightens the illusion of it as a real-life interaction that happens once, then is gone forever.
It’s that same appeal of Instagram Stories or Snapchat. And speaking of Snapchat…
Getting physical over audio
Also like Snapchat, voice messaging can be one of the best (if most unexpected) tools for great sexting.
All those added layers of intimacy embedded in the voice are twice as amplified when the audio message is sexy. At first, the idea of a sexy voice note might sound weird and daunting, especially if you keep a low profile in the bedroom. But actually, sexy audio is far less intimidating than a sexy video or picture.
If you’re still having a hard time envisioning how voice sexting might work, just think about how much the sound of your partner’s pleasure adds to your pleasure during IRL sex. Now also remember that you can say everything you’d send in a sext, but with your actual voice, maybe even while touching yourself, and moaning.
The beauty of audio sexting comes back to the benefit of voice feeling far more intimate than texting, while at the same time a lot less unforgiving than video or picture. Also, audio leaves a lot more left up to the imagination, which is very conducive to long-distance desire.
But be warned: Sending a sexy audio message runs all the same risks of any other form of sexting, since voice texts can be saved by the receiver and sent to anyone. But, another pro here is that, worst-case scenario, it’s harder to definitively prove who sent a piece of audio over a text, video, or picture.
All those factors culminate to make voice messaging one of the greatest gifts for maintaining long-distance relationships.
Aside from closeness and sexiness, voice messaging can save you a lot of grief if you use it instead of texting during a long-distance fight. When forgiving and forgetting is such an important part of dealing with conflict in a healthy way, the temporality of audio messaging helps curb our impulses to “keep score” (if you will) during fights by over analyzing every ugly exchange.
Give voice a chance
Listen, voice texting is far from perfect. Actually, there’s a lot of ways to royally screw it up.
On just a user-experience level, the placement of the record button for voice texts in iMessage feels purposefully designed to set you up for disaster. In all likelihood, your first introduction to the voice text feature on iOS came from the mildly horrifying moment when you accidentally recorded yourself. Even more horrifyingly, you probably noticed how easy it was to also accidentally hit the send button instead of cancel.
At best, this means you’ve got a high chance of sending an inexplicable 3-second clip of white noise with an “oh fuck” of realization at the end. At worst, you could experience a horror like one Mashable employee who unwittingly recorded herself telling a friend the most intimate details about a crush — before then unwittingly sending it to said crush.
On the less dire side, iMessage’s frustrating design makes it equally as easy to cut yourself off short, or lose the voice message altogether. Re-recording an audio message is a uniquely humiliating experience. You do your best to recreate the au naturel vibe of your first attempt, repeating all your improvised inflections and one-liners like a bad sitcom actor.
At the end of the day, though, voice notes tackle what’s most lacking about the normal way of instant messaging: a real sense of the person you’re communicating with.
So don’t overthink it, and just try it, preferably as a fun exercise with a close friend, relative, or significant other.
The world of voice messaging might seem foreign at first. But you’ll quickly discover that all it takes is using your phone for the purpose that it was actually originally made for in the first place.