Voice Note Etiquette: How Long Is Too Long?

Voice Note Etiquette: How Long Is Too Long?

It has become a common scene. Your phone dings, but instead of a text, it’s a forewarning that someone has orated just for you a private podcast of any imaginable length, the subject unknown until you press play. It could be a juicy morsel of gossip, a yarn replete with twists and turns, or a totally mundane account from someone who simply didn’t have their hands free to type it out.

It’s a voice note — somehow one of the most divisive forms of modern communication. More intimate than a text and less urgent than a call, the audio messages don’t set a maximum time limit, unlike other voice messaging services, which eventually cut the sender off. That means senders can hit record and embark on an uninhibited verbal journey, leaving recipients at their mercy.

“If I have to listen to one longer than a minute, I get distracted and stop taking it in,” said Iris Meines, a 29-year-old policy officer at the Dutch consulate in New York. “If it’s under a minute, I’m like, OK, I can do this. Six or seven is just terrible. I don’t even know if I could listen to seven minutes straight of a friend talking on the phone.”

She said she usually takes notes as the recording plays, so she doesn’t forget what points to respond to. (Apple added a transcription feature for audio messages with an update to its operating system in the fall.)

“My friends know I don’t like them,” Ms. Meines said. “I ask them, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’” She finds it particularly grating if she can hear people chewing as they record.

For Ms. Meines, voice notes are mildly irksome — she would prefer talking on the phone or texting if she can’t see her friends face to face, she said. But for others, they appear to border on, if not a moral problem, then at least a question of etiquette. Writing in The Atlantic, Jacob Sweet recently argued that audio messages were “indulgent” and could “encourage selfishness.” A headline in The Spectator described their ubiquity as a “tyranny.”

Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert who teaches classes for adults as well as children, said that voice notes should not be used for lengthy monologues, but only in cases in which “tone is necessary, but a conversation is not” — an apology, for instance.

“Exercise self-control,” she said. “Don’t barge into someone’s life with a long-winded voice note.” More detailed messages, Ms. Swann said, should be saved for a phone call, when both parties can actively engage.

For the phone-averse, that may be easier said than done. Whereas millennials became known for shying away from leaving voice mail messages, Gen Z has a reputation for avoiding phone calls altogether. In a study conducted last May, Australian researchers found that 87 percent of respondents ages 18 to 26 preferred to handle unpleasant dialogues by text instead of phone, and 49 percent said phone calls made them anxious. This may help explain why voice notes — which were introduced by Apple a decade ago but have surged in popularity only in recent years — appear to be especially popular with Gen Z-ers.

Though older generations can be distressed by the phone, too. Alana Jordan, 36, an actress and on-air host in Los Angeles, said she saw voice notes as a way to manage those nerves. She listens back to messages before she sends them and rerecords if she wants to adjust her tone. “Having the ability to edit yourself alleviates the anxiety of being misunderstood,” she said.

Some experts say there can be downsides to avoiding those discomforts. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at M.I.T., warned of a widespread “flight from vulnerability.”

Voice note users, she said, “don’t have to respond to the friction of someone else’s affect” if a disagreement comes up, for example, or an unexpected question.

“Voice notes are essentially no risk,” said Professor Turkle, who is also the author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” “People are losing the capacity for empathetic conversations, which is how we connect with each other. We need to practice that. People are so worried about showing too much of themselves.”

But rather than finding voice notes impersonal or closed off, many of their proponents — often just as vociferous as their critics — say they allow for a special kind of intimacy and vulnerability.

Brittany Marshall, a 27-year-old student who moved to New Jersey from Louisiana to study African American literature, said that she wasn’t the biggest fan of voice notes. “I have to stop what I’m doing and listen to them,” she said. “Then I have to remember everything so I can address it in my response.”

But she welcomes them from one close friend back home. The familiar voice is comforting, she said, and her friend’s expressive speaking style — thanks to a theater performance background — makes her laugh.

Gemalene Sunga, an immunology student in Houston, said she didn’t like being bombarded with a string of voice notes — her friends will send “six or seven in a row, all two minutes long, at least,” she said. “But I do like being able to hear my friends’ voices.”

Ms. Sunga, 31, added that, taking a longer view, she also appreciates voice notes as digital keepsakes. While Apple’s operating system defaults to deleting the messages after two minutes, recipients have the option to save them forever.

“Not to be morbid, but I’m such a nostalgic person that I do think about these things,” she said. “Voice notes aren’t tangible, but they’re sentimental to me.”

So much so that, despite their potential to become irritating, Ms. Sunga is trying to get her friends to send her voice notes even more frequently by sending them herself. “I only safely do it with specific friends, and I read the room,” she said. “I want to be considerate.”

As with any newer form of communication technology, it could take everyone a while to get on the same page about the proper courtesies. “With voice notes, there isn’t yet an established norm, so people have different interpretations,” said Melanie Green, chair of the communication department at the University at Buffalo.

There is research to support that words spoken aloud are better remembered than words read in silence, and that talking to oneself can be therapeutic. In 2007, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that affect labeling — the process of putting feelings into words — can help people manage their responses to negative feelings over time.

Rambling voice notes, then, while potentially onerous on the receiver, may be a healthy practice for the sender.

“I dislike them when I have to listen to them,” Ms. Meines said. “But I love sending them.”