Like everyone else stuck far from family and friends during the pandemic, I am sick of trying to recreate the intimacy of physical closeness. Parties on Zoom are exhausting, and due to bad time-zone synergy, they always lead to someone (me) being drunk at an inappropriate hour. Meanwhile, phone calls are anxiety-inducing impositions, something I need to gear up to, or otherwise be startled by — a common millennial gripe.
Waiting out the pandemic with my partner in our temporary sublet in Cambridge, I’ve tried to stay connected with my family and friends in London, where I grew up, and Berlin, where I used to live. As summer came and went, and lockdowns overlapped and didn’t, we have tried to be there for one another. My lone unexpected source of comfort and intimacy? The humble voice memo — an audio message that you can send on apps like Whatsapp, Instagram, or Apple’s iMessage.
These messages are a kind of communication that feels distinctly before-times, in that people use them to say things that are too difficult to put into text. A friend from college explains her latent dissatisfaction with her boyfriend. A close pal with a new baby describes the ineffable marvels of motherhood while her daughter coos in the background. Another clues me in to a Twitter drama that would have demanded supernatural thumb strength to gossip about via text. The animation in my friends’ voices is irreplaceable.
In return, I send audio of myself stomping along the Charles, delivering pep talks to cooped-up friends, and explaining just how many inches of snow are on the ground, but mostly ranting about how bored I am.
You must understand what a voice memo is not. It is not the same as making a phone call, because it doesn’t unexpectedly demand someone’s attention when they’re in the middle of something else. I once called a former longtime flatmate of mine and she picked up her phone in a panic, assuming the worst. “You’ve never called me before!” she said.
Voice memos are also not voicemails (or, as I call them, “phone call hangovers”), which are now left only by doctors’ offices and butt-dialers. Nothing good has been communicated in a voicemail since text messaging services were invented.
Speaking of text messages, a voice memo isn’t one of those either — nor is it a DM, chat, or “ping” of any kind. In text, you can mistake tone of voice. A “call me back” or even worse, a single question mark — “?” — comes off as passive-aggressive and confusing.
The voice memo, on the other hand, is thoughtful and personalized. It doesn’t demand attention immediately, nor does it call for a response. Instead, these recordings, sent by friends to listen to whenever I choose, feel like warm, spontaneous postcards from the other side of the world.
Which sentence elicits a spontaneous giggle from my friend and which a rueful sigh? With a text, I’d never know. With an audio message, I hear every breath. Joy, confusion, surprise, ambivalence — these nuances are a part of how we communicate in the real world, and a voice memo brings that back. Sending them to others also helps me stay practiced in the art of conversation, making sure I don’t lose track of how best to tell a juicy bit of gossip. As my partner and I begin to communicate solely in in-jokes and memes, it’s a skill I’m in danger of losing.
There are also less intentional, ambient clues to context: birds singing in the distance, a bus whooshing past, or the sizzle of onions cooking in the background. Suddenly, with those background sounds, I’m right next to the people I care about — an experience I can only yearn for IRL.
The best part of all is that I don’t have to wait for both of us to be free to talk on the phone. Although many of us have a lot more time than we used to, we still have commitments, and things get complicated internationally. I’m on Eastern time, and my contacts are mostly on London or central European time, so I’m just getting up and on with my day when they are winding down and ready to talk.
I can also now skip Zoom cocktail parties. European time zones and propensity for drinking mean that those events leave me fully intoxicated by the time it hits 6 p.m. in Boston. But whether they’re boozy or not, scheduled video calls are inherently awkward, with each participant trying not to talk over others. As we listen, we are checking our physical signals as well as the other person’s — is she really concentrating or has she started scrolling the news as we talk? Video calls are, in short, hard work, requiring focus and attention that can lead to exhaustion.
I yearn for the intimacy of a low-commitment hangout, a careless lounge-around in a cafe, or a glass of wine in a friend’s kitchen. I want to browse the bookshelves of someone I love and watch the detritus of their life putter past.
Voice memos impart some of that randomness of a real-life encounter, a bit of pointless chat from a friend that you can consume when you’re ready and that won’t expire if you’re not. After all, a voice memo is not the medium for important information. There are no vital requests for clarification contained within. It’s also not the medium for bad news, the stench of which has hung over so many conversations this past year. You can tap “listen” on a voice memo safe in the knowledge that nothing will be required of you. You can tap “record” when you don’t have much to say. In that moment, you are simply hanging out.
It’s been 408 days since I last saw my family in London. And 500 or so since I saw many of my best friends in Berlin. I miss them every day. Until we can be together in person, I’ll continue to send and receive these audio treasures, reminding me of what it’ll be like when we see each other again.
Josie Thaddeus-Johns is a freelance arts and culture writer based in Cambridge. Follow her on Twitter @josiet_j.