My friend met his wife on Twitter. If it hadn’t been for voice notes, they might never have clicked | Shelley Hepworth
A friend of mine met his wife on Twitter a few years ago. Because he was on a trip at the time, they didn’t have a real date until two months after they started dating. Initially, his wife found his online persona a bit rough. It wasn’t until they switched from text to voicemail that their connection really blossomed.
My friend says he’s had similar comments in the past – somehow his kind and curious nature is flattened into something harsher in text form. “So much more is communicated when you use your voice,” he says.
Since the invention of writing, the pendulum of dominant human communication has swung between the written and the oral, as different inventions have favored one form or the other: letters, books, telephones, radio, television , SMS and instant messaging (used by 2 billion people every month on WhatsApp alone).
And if we can think that these forms are interchangeable, as the American historian Walter Ong writes: “Technologies are not simple external aids but also internal transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect speech. The forms we use to communicate affect what we say, how we say it, and how our message is received. “The medium is the message,” says media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
The boundary between oral and written is increasingly blurred by new communication tools. Text messaging is more like a verbal conversation than an email or letter, while voice messages have elements of written forms in that the dialogue element is interrupted. “Writing initiated…the separation of the spoken word from the living present,” says Ong.
Lisa Fritsch, German journalist and expert on how voicemails are used in messaging apps, says communication media a continuum depending on the amount of real-time dialogue and whether the language is formal or informal. Face-to-face conversation is the most informal and synchronous, while academic writing is the opposite – and voicemail falls somewhere between phone calls and text messages.
Fritsch studied the use of voicemails among international students, who told him they preferred them because their speed made them more convenient, they allowed for more complexity, and they were emotionally richer and more intimate. “I think with people you know well, like your parents or your best friends, you really like to have oral communication,” Fritsch says. “For example, it’s so much easier to crack jokes via voicemail, and you can live with a friend you miss for a bit, or if you’re really sad, then you really hear it in the voice.”
As communication has moved increasingly online over the past few decades, it may seem like writing has become the primary means of communication, but it’s worth keeping in mind, as Ong points out, “Oral expression can exist and above all has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality.” Sign language also depends on oral speech systems, according to Ong. “Language is so overwhelmingly oral that of the thousands of languages spoken in human history…most have never been written down at all.”
Verbal communication is so natural to us that it only makes sense that the pendulum would swing back in its favor with its integration into instant messaging – a “revival of oral communication”, as Fritsch puts it. Voice memos were first introduced to messaging apps by WhatsApp in 2013. Use of the feature has slowly grown in the years since, but the pandemic – along with new uses for dating apps – seems to have accelerated its adoption.
You can see the appeal: you get the intimacy and sensory richness of a phone call, but you can choose when to listen and when to answer. It’s the on-demand culture of music and movies, migrated to phone calls.
My friend describes the phone calls as “an act of violence”. He’s ten years younger and I have to remember to message ahead to schedule a phone conversation. “People who call unannounced assume their need to talk to me outweighs my need to continue what I’m doing without interruption,” he says.
It will send voice notes to explain thought bubbles, rather than typing an essay into a text message. “It’s so much less intimidating to spend a few minutes listening to a voice memo than to read 500 words of text.”
Still, I find myself texting or scheduling a phone call in response – eager to have an immediate exchange of a synchronous conversation. I don’t find my friend’s texts dull (now that I know him), but if he shared an interesting idea then I want to explore it in real time.
Here is a good example. When I started researching this column, I sent my friend a voicemail explaining the theme and asking him why he loves voicemails so much. Only he never answered. When I finally cornered him in a phone call, I got not only the delightful story of his marriage, but a fascinating conversation about why we each prefer our different mediums.
For some reason, voicemails give me a kind of jitters, like I’m giving a speech to a room full of people rather than talking to a friend – but they’re fun to play with. We can get stuck in our usual ways of connecting with others, forgetting that there are other options at our fingertips. As the tyranny of the pandemic keeps our worlds small, why not change those habits and see what happens?
Like this guy…