A love letter to the WhatsApp voice note – in good times and bad

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Charley Ross
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As working from home becomes the norm and travel bans increase, it’s never been more important to stay authentically connected. 

Alongside many other digitally-obsessed millennials, within minutes of opening my eyes in the morning I reach for my phone. Aside from the Twitter, Instagram and (albeit sporadic) Facebook scrolls, I head for WhatsApp. Not to check for messages, but to check for voice notes.

Typed-out messages and updates can often seem faceless – and even more often, they get lost in translation due to lack of tone, nuance or out-loud laughter. In contrast, a voice note is unique to the person who is sending and receiving.

Whether you’re singing happy birthday to an old friend, analysing every painstaking detail of a run-in with an ex-boyfriend, living vicariously though a mate’s move overseas, or venting why your boss, mum or flatmate is doing your head in – voice notes are the tonic to the madness of everyday modern life.

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I first started using WhatsApp voice notes shortly after moving to London almost four years ago. Living in a student halls flat in North East London, I wasn’t just miles from my friends back home, but also a hardy bus or tube journey away from most of the London-based familiar faces in my life. 

So I began to construct short, chatty monologues about my daily inner thoughts on my walk to the supermarket, or on the bus to lectures, or in my tiny little box bedroom – and would send them to my nearest and dearest. I immediately felt more connected to my family back home, as well as the new friends I made who lived all over the city.

Like any important relationship, voice notes quickly became a feature in different parts of my daily life. I sent short (albeit husky) notes to a guy I was dating while I was off work sick, I squealed requests for job advice over the Atlantic to my friend who had emigrated to Canada. I even started sending voice notes to my flatmate – when I couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed and walk across the hall to her room.

Things, though, came to an undeniable peak with my voice note usage almost 18 months in. Bear in mind that recording a message for a friend in this way allows you to be much more uninhibited than when you’re writing a message. There’s no editing – just you, your voice and whatever is on your mind. 

WhatsApp voice notes are a great way to connect authentically

A friend of mine sent me a three-episode voice note saga, narrating the harrowing tale of her night out, and the did-she-or-didn’t-she drama of whether she had caught an STI from her ex. The audio storytelling was so compelling that my two housemates became invested instantly, and we all listened, transfixed, while cooking dinner.

Hilarity aside – for me, there’s something about the soothing familiarity of the human voice that makes me feel calmer and more connected to others. Particularly when it comes to voices that I trust, voices that I can relate to. The amount of people who listen to podcasts (arguably, another voice-led means of comfort) also increased by 24% in 2019, according to Ofcom, and I think this is for, at least partially, the same reason.

When I’m desperately trying to inject some energy into my morning, I listen to cheery voice notes from my newscaster friend in Jersey while I make my coffee. Listening to his unrelenting zest for life and jokey disposition through my phone speaker does wonders in clearing clouds of sleep from my mind, leaving me feeling comforted and recharged. Even though I cannot see him, he is there.

Our increased love of a voice note indicates that we want to hear human voices in an increasingly digitally-focussed world, and this has never been more important than in the age of a worsening global pandemic.

With increasing numbers of people self-isolating to contain potential coronavirus symptoms – and even more adding responsible social distancing restraints into their daily lives – loneliness is sure to be the mental health epidemic that follows hot on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to research from The Lancet, the key impacts of quarantine on our mental health have been found to resemble PTSD symptoms, as well as confusion and anger. The coronavirus aftermath has even been said to have the potential to cause a social contact recession, as well as an economic one.

A friend of mine has had to self-isolate, as she is showing coronavirus symptoms. So, I’ve been sure to send her voice notes of reassurance and daily conversation bites to keep her human contact levels high – seeing as her partner was abroad and her only other form of contact has been her mum dropping grocery shopping at her front door and scarpering, as all delivery slots had been taken. Just a few minutes’ playback of a familiar voice can do wonders in stressful times.

Our increased love of a voice note indicates that we want to hear human voices in an increasingly digitally-focussed world

So, on top of taking a break from news stories that may be making us feel panicked or overwhelmed, we should also be taking steps to ensure others around us aren’t suffering with their mental health. Hence my love of voice notes – what better way to communicate in a modern age?

Co-ordinating phone calls with friends and family can be difficult due to differing (and now, likely, remote) working schedules, while others may be feeling too overwhelmed or anxious to stay on the line for too long. But a voice note gives you a short burst of what’s going on with somebody, a revitalising distraction from your own worries and a reminder that other people’s lives are continuing on, in some way, outside of any anxiety you may be feeling.

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For the uninitiated, some quick tips for recording a voice note are as follows: do so conversationally, full of belly laughs and drama. Talk as if the person on the other end is going to clap back with a reassuring comment or a hilarious joke at any minute. For me, it works as a brilliant tension release.

Having sent voice notes at the lowest and most panicked points in my life, as well as the highest, most giddy, happy and successful, I can honestly say that recording them helps me to feel present – and receiving them from others immediately makes me feel less alone.