Our generation grew up with answering machines and voicemail. The scramble for words—or being at a sudden loss for them—is a feeling many of us are familiar with as we sat mouths agape and minds empty, for that split-second after the beep. There is a particular anxiety which comes with recording into the ether: a mild self-consciousness often washes over us and makes us trip over our words, or ramble on, or forget what we were going to say entirely.
This anxiety has now taken on a different shape as we gained more control over self-documentation with front-facing cameras, undo buttons, filters, and editing software. But it doesn’t make us hate the sound of our own voices any less. Voice notes, the little audio files we send over instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp, iMessage, or WeChat, occupy a special region of their own.
In an era where phone calls are falling out of favor and reserved for scams and telemarketers, the advent of voice notes is a strange one indeed. We would be hard-pressed to find another medium that is more unnecessary, yet less popular, than the humble voice note. Given that we all cringe to some extent at hearing the sound of our own voices and with so many other options at our disposal, why, one must wonder, do we bother sending them at all?
The appeal of voice notes can be a divisive topic: for every person that claims they save time, another will surely think they are a waste of such. The convenience of pressing “record” and speaking our mind’s truth often comes at the cost of the receiver’s convenience. Voice notes take almost 100% of the receiver’s attention and they cannot do much else on their phones besides watch the audio tracker move from left to right as the sender rambles on. (A word of advice: never send anything longer than ten seconds unless you have a very good story to tell.)
In Asia, particularly Hong Kong and China where the primary language does not use an alphabet system, voice notes are often the primary mode of messaging on platforms like WhatsApp and WeChat. It is not unusual to see a volley of audio files in a conversation window with little to no text messages. Granted, this does make screenshots significantly less entertaining, but it saves Chinese speakers a lot of time otherwise spent writing characters stroke by stroke or painstakingly selecting words from a clumsy English pin-yin system.
During the past 20 months or so that the world has spent in isolation, the voices of our loved ones are usually a welcome comfort. Unlike a text message where we can’t help but read them with our inner monologue, a voice note comes with the tone, cadence, and inflection unique to the sender. Sound, much like touch and scent, gives us a feeling of closeness and intimacy which sight alone does not provide. We are acutely aware of when a voice warms up or cools down, when the pitch drops a touch lower to turn sensuous, when it rises in anger, or falters in hesitation for even a fraction of a syllable.
The feeling of connection through hearing someone’s voice is deeply ingrained in us—after all, our brains have been evolved to read verbal cues for far longer than they have been evolved for language. There is research that indicates we may even rely more on tone of voice to detect emotional nuances than facial expressions, and that we might glean more from a voice note or phone call than even a Zoom session with the combination of voice and video. And so the seemingly oddball medium of voice messaging may, in actuality, reign supreme as a modern mode of communication—as long as we still have that undo button.
Cover Credit: Chin Zien / SOL
Writer | Vanessa Lee
Vanessa is an art, fashion and lifestyle writer and creative consultant from Vancouver, Canada. She is currently based in Hong Kong.