In a world where we’re overloaded with texts, anxiety-ridden about phone calls, and fatigued by video chats, many people are turning to another form of communication: voice messages.
Voice messages, sometimes called “voice notes” or “voice texts,” are short audio recordings people send to each other (not to be confused with voicemail) and a built-in feature in popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, iMessage, and Telegram.
Maybe you’ve noticed: Lately, they’re popping up in more group chats and one-on-one conversations. 62 percent of Americans say they’ve sent a voice message, and around 30 percent communicate this way weekly, daily, or multiple times a day, according to a random sample poll of 1,000 US adults by YouGov run for Vox. Younger people are using voice messaging even more, with some 43 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds who responded to the survey saying that they use the feature at least weekly. WhatsApp said last year that over 7 billion voice messages are sent on the app every day. Some are even communicating more with voice messages than texts, according to WhatsApp’s head of consumer product, Zafir Khan.
“I use voice messages every single day,” Kennedy Dierks, a 21-year-old student at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told me. “I find it to be a lot more personal than a text.”
Dierks said voice messages have exploded in popularity on her college campus in the past year. As an example, she said she recently used the feature to give a friend the rundown about a date she’d just gone on, because it was easier to “hash it out” than via text. More broadly, voice memos are popular because they allow people to share the richness that comes with voice communication, like tone, mood, and humor — without the pressure of inconveniencing someone with a phone call.
“It gives me anxiety to think I’m going to catch someone at a bad time with a call,” said Hannah Ayla, a 30-year-old graphic designer in Tampa, Florida, who says voice messages “saved her relationships” when she was dealing with chronic pain in her arm and unable to text.
There are downsides to voice messages, though. They can be tedious to listen to if they’re too long or rambling, which can happen a lot. And it’s hard to discreetly send a voice note if you’re in a meeting or at work.
“I respect the fact that most people are like, ‘I don’t want to have to stop and listen to you talk for three minutes or whatever. I just want to have a back-and-forth conversation,’” said social media consultant Matt Navarra, who is a power user of WhatsApp voice messages. “It can be quite annoying that you are monopolizing their time.”
In my experience, I use voice notes to keep in touch with friends who live overseas in vastly different time zones. With voice messages, I can give them meaningful updates about what’s new in my life without overwhelming them with multiple-paragraph-long texts. I find it to be a more thoughtful form of communication. Although it can take longer for me to listen to a two-minute audio clip than skim through a text, with audio messages there’s less pressure to respond right away, allowing me to really listen to what my friends are saying and respond when I have time to share a deep response.
Voice messages give us some of the emotional depth and nuance that’s missing from bite-size texts that compress our feelings. The fact that people are embracing a relatively new, more expressive messaging format for talking to each other may reflect a deeper phenomenon: our desire to strengthen relationships as the horrors of the pandemic gradually recede and we emerge from a period of social isolation and loneliness.
I spoke with several avid voice message users, and dug into the research behind voice versus text communication, to better understand why people are embracing voice messages and how they’re shaping our relationships.
The science of voice messaging
There’s scientific rationale for why people prefer voice messages to texts in some situations: We can understand each other better when we actually listen.
Research has shown that by hearing someone’s voice, even for a matter of seconds, people can pick up on what’s called “paralinguistic cues,” which we don’t have over text. Those cues — like someone speaking a little more loudly when they’re excited — help people convey their intended message, especially when it comes to communicating complex emotions like sarcasm or humor.
Even though paralinguistic cues can be subtle, they’re “humanizing” reminders that whoever you’re listening to “is a thoughtful, feeling person,” said Juliana Schroeder, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Schroeder’s research has shown that not only are people more likely to have “empathic accuracy,” or a better understanding of the mental state a person is in when they hear instead of read what they’re saying, but they seem to find the person more sharp and relatable, too. When people listen to someone speak rather than read their writing, they perceive them as more “mentally capable” — meaning reasonable, emotional, and likable — Schroeder’s study found.
In one experiment, people with liberal views who were exposed to a person espousing conservative political views had a less negative perception of the communicator when they listened to them talking, compared to when they read a transcript of the exact same audio.
On a more personal level, the research findings match what I’ve been hearing about why people like voice messages. Several people told me that they use voice messages to express complex feelings that can become muddled over text: like checking in with someone who you’re worried may be upset with you, or, conversely, showing someone that you’re actually not upset (we’ve all panicked over receiving an inscrutable “k” or “that’s fine” text). In essence, voice messages can help clarify miscommunications.
“Sometimes in friendships, there’s a compulsion to apologize for something the other person might not even be bothered by,” said Ashley Alderton, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and uses voice texts a lot. “If you’re trying to reassure somebody, it’s so much easier to do that with your voice because you can show warmth.”
More than just warmth, there’s a sense of authenticity with voice messages that’s harder to achieve with text.
For example, Ayla said that when she had to cancel last minute on a date due to suddenly getting booked for surgery, she sent a voice note instead of a text.
If she texted him, “it would sound really fake,” she said. It’s a good thing she didn’t, Ayla said, because her date (who is now her boyfriend), said he probably wouldn’t have believed her if he didn’t hear her explain the situation.
There’s another big reason some people are more personal in audio messages than in texts: It feels more private. On iMessage, audio messages disappear by default after two minutes, giving them an ephemeral nature. Of course, if someone wanted to, they could save the audio and send it around — so that feeling of privacy may be a false sense of security — but it’s still why some people said they felt more comfortable sharing personal details via voice message.
Adding to the more unfiltered vibe of audio messages is the fact that many people send them right away without second-guessing what they’re saying. On both WhatsApp and iMessage, by default, voice messages are sent instantaneously. While both apps give you the option to listen to your message before sending and rerecord if you want, it’s a lot easier to just send one off without thinking about it — a harder task to do with texts.
“I just lift my finger and let go,” said Ayla, explaining the simple push-and-record mechanism for sending an audio message. “If I re-listened, I would never send one.”
Many people who send voice notes said they did so because it simply takes less effort than crafting a text, especially for more off-the-cuff conversations.
“If I’m talking about something that’s really stupid, like if we’re talking about reality TV drama or just some sort of silly story, that would take way more time to write out than it would to rattle on,” Alderton told me.
An international equalizer
While voice messages seem to be catching on more now in the US, they have long been popular internationally, particularly on WhatsApp, which has had the feature since 2013.
Voice messages are “an equalizer because not every language is easy to type,” said WhatsApp’s Khan, who uses the feature to keep in touch with relatives in Pakistan whom he can speak with — but not read and write to — in Urdu. In the YouGov poll of 1,000 American users, about 13 percent said they use voice messaging specifically to overcome language barriers.
Voice messaging is also more popular in some parts of the world than others because “in some cultures, people seem to naturally gravitate toward voice,” said Khan. It’s particularly popular, for example, with WhatsApp users in Latin America and West Africa.
Gloria Felicia, a 27-year-old San Francisco-based tech entrepreneur and startup adviser for Spero Studios, said that with her family in Indonesia, voice messages aren’t as common.
“It’s almost rude for them to send voice messages,” said Felicia. “But in China, I know for a lot of my friends, voice messaging is an everyday thing. ... Even in a personal relationship, like a boyfriend-girlfriend situation, I know people who almost never text each other. They just reply to each other’s voice notes throughout the day.”
Part of voice messages’ international appeal may be because it’s been a core feature of WhatsApp, which historically has had a much bigger user base outside the US (although recently, it’s been growing the fastest in North America). The Meta-owned app is the most popular messaging app in countries like India and Brazil.
In many countries, “it’s not uncommon for us to see some users who communicate primarily with voice messages even more than text,” Khan said. “We want to be an app that’s flexible enough to allow people to communicate in a way that works best for them.”
Just a fad or a meaningful shift?
It’s clear why people like voice messages. But are they actually improving our relationships in a meaningful way? And will they come and go as other fads in audio have (remember Clubhouse)?
Several studies have shown that people feel more socially bonded when communicating via phone call rather than text-based communication. We don’t know whether those findings hold to voice messages, which, unlike phone calls, are “asynchronous,” meaning that you aren’t talking to the other person at the same time, according to Amit Kumar, a professor of marketing and psychology at UT Austin who conducted research on the topic.
When I video-called Kumar recently, he explained the upsides: “As we’re having this conversation, I see you nodding when I’m saying things, and you can interject with questions ... and I can respond in real time.” The back-and-forth creates social bonding in phone and video calls, but that bonding may not be as strong with voice messages.
They can also be less convenient than texting because it takes longer to listen to them.
That’s why voice notes aren’t for everyone. Navarra said that some people don’t want to be bothered by listening to voice notes, which he says have much more benefits for the sender than the receiver.
“It’s quite a self-serving communication style,” he said.
WhatsApp’s Khan acknowledged that voice messages can be “more cumbersome to listen to than text” and said that’s why the app rolled out features to help make voice messages more convenient for people who don’t have the time to listen, like faster playback speeds. The company is also testing auto transcription for voice messages — which could help people take in voice messages more quickly but also would take away some of their personal appeal.
Even with these features designed for convenience, voice messages can still be more time-consuming (at least for the receiver) than texting, and don’t have the same benefits of “synchronous” communication like a phone call or in-person chat, researchers say.
“I find it curious that people would choose to use this technology,” said Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, “because in some ways it introduces inefficiencies of communication.”
But with voice messages, the trade-off is part of the point. Voice messages will never replace the efficiency of a text or the real-time connection of a phone call. Voice messages are a compromise between those two mediums.
At a time when there are seemingly endless ways to communicate, it’s meaningful that people are choosing voice messages at all. It suggests that people — especially young people — are taking more ownership of their daily communication habits. They’re not just defaulting to texts, calls, or video chats, but instead experimenting with new ways to talk that feel more natural to them. For that reason, my bet is voice messages are here to stay — even if that means it’ll become more normal to spend 15 minutes listening to voice notes detailing my friends’ disastrous first dates.