1 Nov 2022

The etiquette of voice notes

I think the greatest sound in the world is the human voice” Miles Davis

In the early years of this century voicemail was rejected by the younger generation of mobile users in favour of texts. For some years, texts seemed to rule the world, a universally popular way of communicating. But in 2013 WhatsApp introduced the voice note, which allowed users to send a short, recorded message; other apps followed suit and the landscape was once again transformed. WhatsApp reports that around seven billion voice notes are now sent per day worldwide.

Yet voice notes are not universally popular, and for many people the jury is still out. A YouGov poll in June 2022 reported that 22 per cent of respondents with smartphones liked receiving voice notes, and 25 per cent of respondents disliked doing so. The whole topic is clearly very divisive, and these are just some of the arguments:

Pro

Voice notes are extremely convenient. You can send them while you’re doing something else – for example cooking, driving or walking. You don’t have to down tools and focus on your phone.

Voice notes are better for sensitive topics, because the modulations of the human voice communicate a subtle range of emotions that simply cannot be conveyed in a short text. We all know how attuned we are to the human voice and how quickly we can pick up signs that all is not well or detect when someone is not being wholly honest.  Cancelling a date with a ‘something’s come up’ text is bland and uninformative. Leaving a voice note will speak volumes about whether you’re genuinely harassed and regretful, or just making up excuses.

Voice notes are a way of bypassing the exhausting etiquette of text messages, where you’re having to second-guess and interpret gnomic utterances such as ‘ok’ or decide whether emojis are sarcastic or ironic.

Voice notes are essentially monologues, so they give you a chance to speak, uninterrupted, without fear of being cut off or talked over. 

Con

A voice note might be convenient for the sender, but it may not be ideal for the recipient. Listening to a voice note requires a certain amount of disruption – you may have to stop what you’re doing, find a quiet place, or dig out your headphones or earbuds.

It’s difficult to multitask where voice notes are concerned – with an incoming text you can glance at it, and even briefly reply, when you’re working on your laptop, in a video call, watching tv (though this is not recommended when you’re eating, talking with friends or driving). Voice notes require focus.

The tone of the human voice speaks volumes, but you may prefer conversation to monologue. Some people really don’t like feeling they’re being talked at – they would rather receive a short text asking if it is convenient to take a call.

Some people find it hard to leave voice notes. They find it very difficult to ad lib without any feedback and run out of steam. They miss vocal cues and responses, even if it is someone mumbling vague noises of assent down the line.

Considerate Voice Notes

Wherever you stand in the debate, it’s important to observe good voice note etiquette:

• It’s always thoughtful to fit the medium of communication to the recipient. Older people might have only just mastered the art of texting and find voice notes altogether too much. Only send them to people who are likely to listen to them and take them in their stride – it might be a good idea to check first.

• Don’t send long rambling messages; try to keep your recording under two minutes, otherwise your weary listeners will be forced to speed up the recording. Think about what you’re going to say before you press ‘record’ and stick to your subject.

• Don’t test your listener’s patience with long pauses, repetitions, ums and ers, and fillers (eg the repetitive use of the word ‘like’).

• If you are sending a recording to convey specific information or to ask a question, get to the point straight away. Don’t bury the point of your message at the end of your recording – a frustrated or interrupted listener might not make it to the end.

• Don’t send ridiculously short voice notes, such as ‘I agree’ or ‘yes, that’s fine with me’. If your message is under five words long, you should certainly send a text.

• Make sure your recording is audible – don’t send voice notes in crowded rooms, at noisy stations or when you’re walking along a busy road with huge buses and lorries thundering past. Remember, there’s nothing more frustrating than a barely audible recording.

• Don’t convey important news, for example announcing that you’re getting married or having a baby, by voice note. You want to give the recipient of the news the chance to react and celebrate with you and sending a voice note will deprive them of that pleasure.

• Voice notes are great for spontaneity – the minute a thought pops into your head you can just press record. But it’s a good idea to pause first: don’t send voice notes in the middle of the night, when notifications might rouse people, and avoid sending voice notes when you’re drunk.

• When it comes to playing back voice notes keep the volume down if you’re in a crowded space, or preferably use headphones – you never know just how private the message will be.

• Don’t use voice notes for practical information: instructions, directions, dates, telephone numbers, addresses. Recipients will be really irritated if you do, as accessing the information is needlessly difficult.

• Don’t send work-related voice notes – in a professional capacity it is always preferable to use written communication, so there’s a tangible ‘evidence trail’ in case problems or queries arise.

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