In the early days of social distancing, a colleague of mine tweeted a photo of a brightly colored bird perched outside her window in Brooklyn. She captioned it, as if reading the bird’s mind: “Who’s in a cage now?”
When, a few days later, my city issued a stay-at-home order, I felt like the target of that taunt. Feeling cooped up by mandated social distancing, I bloated my calendar with appointments for virtual social connection. My first dinner over Zoom wasn’t as rigid and glitchy as I’d expected. As my partner and I ate next to each other at our dining room table, we had the pleasant illusion that we were seated across from our friends at their home, 300 miles away.
Within a week of video calls, my eyes wanted relief. Because I’m among the fortunate fraction of Americans who are both employed and able to work remotely, I was spending nearly all of the workweek in front of my laptop. My phone offered no respite. I was often greeted with a burst of texts on group chains, which, until recently, had lain dormant. If I opted to read the news, coronavirus-related articles repopulated like endless scarves in a magician’s trick. My work and social life began blurring into an enervating haze of screens.
An obvious way to relieve my screen fatigue would have been to scale back contact with loved ones — or better yet, unmoor myself from my phone. But that would disconnect me from friends at the very time I wanted their presence. Instead, I embraced a less flashy mode of communication: voice memos. They’ve not only made me feel like a full participant in my friends’ ever-changing lives; voice memos have helped me understand the nature of connection that we’re craving in this time of social distancing.
I was introduced to voice memos a few years ago, in the early days of an exhilarating friendship. When I received that maiden voice memo from my friend, the first emotion it triggered was embarrassment. I wondered, how hadn’t I noticed the microphone icon at the bottom of WhatsApp and Signal and iMessage? If anyone should have known about a voice recording function, it should have been me; I’m a podcast producer. With one button, I discovered, I could record and send a file that captures speech like voice mail but is easily retrievable like email. I could use a voice memo to send a stream-of-consciousness life update or a brief comment.
I soon became enchanted by voice memos and used them to deepen other friendships. Though I’ve considered myself a voice memo evangelist for years, I’ve never felt a stronger pull toward them than in these last few months, when the type of social contact that my friends and I need is more pressing and particular than usual.
Spontaneity, I’ve learned, is essential. Unlike phone or video calls, voice memos don’t require a half dozen messages to find a date and time when my friend’s mismatched schedule aligns with mine. Nor do I need to rein in my urge to reach out for fear that I’m going to interrupt a friend — and subsequently nurse the loneliness that arrives when I realize I want to get in touch with someone who isn’t available. My friends and I record voice memos whenever a space opens up in our day or a notable event happens — which in these times can mean a triumphant experiment in fresh noodle-making or recovering from a panic attack. We’re assured that our friend will listen to the message as soon as she has the time.
Whereas video calls anchor us to the computer or within an arm’s distance from our phone’s screen, with voice memos we can talk as we cook, do laundry or get fresh air; we can inhabit the world alongside our friend, who can listen while she is living hers. I feel like my friend’s traveling companion when she interrupts what she’s saying to describe the unusual plant in front of a neighbor’s house or the family of foxes she’s spotted.
When I started exchanging voice memos, these glimpses of life in the wild immediately struck me as this technology’s greatest charm. My friends had the same reaction. One told me that he gets delight from hearing the noise I emit as I pull open the door to my apartment building. I relished in the idiosyncratic sounds that my friends make or that I pick up in their environment: the chirps of the pedestrian crossing signal, the gravel abrading my friend’s shoes.
Now, this feature of voice memos feeds my need to feel present with friends whom I can’t physically accompany. I notice the supreme quiet of the neighborhood my friend is walking around, its serenity interrupted only by the trills of insects. Before she absconded to her parents’ house in the suburbs, we used to see each other nearly every day because our apartments are on the same busy Washington, D.C., block. As I listen to her voice memo, I imagine my friend, her hair still slick from her evening shower, walking along the undisturbed roads of her parents’ stately neighborhood.
Sound has a paradoxical power to evoke vivid images. This is one of the appeals that voice memos shares with audio storytelling of all kinds. Sit in any introductory course on podcast production, and you’ll hear the adage that “audio is a visual medium.” A deftly produced audio piece, through its narration and ambient sounds, invites the listener to envision the story’s characters and scenes. At a time when we’d otherwise only see what fits inside a Zoom box, this capacity of voice memos widens the windows we have into our loved ones’ worlds.
Then there’s the information we pick up from the sound of someone’s voice: the raspy quality that tells me she only just woke up, or the buoyancy his voice carries when he’s energized about an idea. In these last few months, I’ve become more accustomed to hearing unsteadiness in my friends’ voices. They’ve had difficult news to relay: a break up of a years-long relationship, disappointment that a partner’s long-awaited move to the U.S. is indefinitely postponed, concern about a grandfather’s isolation in his nursing home. When my friend’s voice trembled as she described the devastation of having a job offer rescinded because of budget cuts, my body pressed pause — I was hit with a pang of empathy more potent than anything I’d experienced when we'd discussed the same issue at length on Slack and Google Hangouts.
The solace I’ve felt from recording and listening to these messages has revealed what I need to feel connected right now: the sense that my friends and I are in the middle of each other’s realities, not recipients of tidy summaries assembled after the drama has faded. Voice memos, unvarnished and expressed with the emotion that the human voice contains, sound more like life as it’s lived than as it’s narrated retrospectively. They also lend a sense of security. When the distance could easily erode my friendships, the details we share in these meandering messages — both the momentous and the mundane — spare us from the standard challenge of long-distance friends: aligning rafts that had drifted down the river at different paces. I have the feeling that we’re still floating side by side. In some cases, our newfound rhythm of voice memo exchanges has made us more in sync.
I’ve sent voice memos to enough friends to know that some cringe at the prospect of recording themselves. Their freestyle, unedited form deprives the speaker of the control to craft each word as she might in a text or email. The asynchronicity of voice memos also denies the speaker standard forms of conversation feedback. No head nods or “mm-hmms” or questions. But these peculiarities can be advantages. For my friends and me, leaving these impromptu monologues has become as much about communicating to a loved one as processing life for ourselves, in real time. It’s become all the more therapeutic to unpack events without delay at a moment when our physical health, emotional states and finances can feel as unstable as skating on a half-frozen lake.
We’re not the only ones who benefit from sending and receiving these messages. Our future selves do. Over the years, I’ve scrolled back through the time capsule of WhatsApp, sometimes because I wanted to remember the wise advice a friend gave, or I simply yearned to hear a friend’s voice again.
When our world feels so precarious, there are few more precious things than the sound of a loved one’s unrehearsed words that you can listen to on demand and replay.