The dos and don’ts of voice messaging

Voice notes – which are something of a cross between a standard text message and a personal podcast – are becoming increasingly popular. And Apple makes it easy to send them instead of a regular old iMessage: On an iPhone, you simply hold down the little microphone button that appears next to where you would type a text message; then you speak, sending a clip of your voice to the person you’re talking to. Some people love that. Some people hate it. Some people, like me, are recent converts. But there’s an etiquette you should know no matter where you stand.

Have a good relationship with your recipient

First, don’t send a voicemail to someone with whom you don’t have a solid, existing relationship. Remember how text messages used to feel very personal compared to phone calls and emails, and you may have once resented being contacted that way by a colleague or acquaintance? That’s how voice memos feel now. There’s just something strangely intimate about hearing another person’s voice. Avoid sending a voice message to a new friend, a boss, a professor, or someone who may not know how to play it (like your grandmother).

Next, use your understanding of the other person to find out if they even want a voicemail. I used to respond to every voice note I received with a text that said something like “lol, absolutely not” or “don’t listen, try again”. Some people just don’t want to pause their music or otherwise interrupt their day to listen to your monologue. You see, iMessage voice memos are tricky: you can’t pause them and restart them in the middle. You can’t backtrack them to listen to specific segments again. Once someone presses play, they’re committed; you have to listen to the whole damn thing. Depending on their phone settings, the voice memo may also disappear a few minutes after it’s played. Consuming voice memos has a rushed, messy element, and you should know – before you send one – if your intended recipient can’t do all that.

When asked for his tips on voice memo etiquette, Ramy Zabarah, a media professional in New York City, was anything but enthusiastic about the whole idea.

“I always prefer texting to talking on the phone,” he said, pointing out the similarities between calls and voice memos: erratic service, loud distractions, or no time to sit down and listen to audio make it difficult to concentrate, while texts are just more readable on the go. Moreover, he added, “It doesn’t allow me to have the conversation or respond to it.” Finally, he expressed his annoyance at having to listen to an entire voice memo every time he missed something that was said.

So someone like Zabarah is not a good candidate to receive your voice memos. Check with your friends to see if they want to communicate this way or not. If you’re about to fire off a long message to send one to someone you don’t normally correspond with this way, it doesn’t hurt to write and ask first.

Make it easy for the other person

Voice memos are supposed to be fun! Once you get comfortable with them, you can tell compelling stories with impressions, sing, or let your friends hear your surroundings. It’s intimate and cool and, when done right, can be a great way to communicate. (I’ve generally found a lot of relief in just jamming a primal scream into a voice memo for my best friend when something has gone wrong in my life). That being said, don’t screw this up by making your recipient understand what you’re saying.

“Voice memos need to be less than a minute and 30 seconds long,” said Emily Rella, a writer in her twenties who is also a prolific user of voice memos. “When you go over, cut it in half. And don’t do it while you’re out walking. It can get muffled.”

Remember that iPhone users can’t go back and play specific sections of voicemails. So if you break your longer stories into smaller parts, at least they have the option to play back only certain parts. Also, pay attention to your environment. For example, if you’re in a noisy bar or public restroom, keep in mind that you might be drowned out or your friend might hear something they don’t want to hear. Also, try to keep an eye on their location. If they’re in a noisy bar or public restroom, they may not want or be able to whip out their AirPods just to listen to your 30-second chatter. Sometimes a text is just a better option.

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