There is a scene in Spike Jonze’s 2014 film Her where Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) lies discontentedly on his crumpled duvet under the blue light of early morning. He searches for automated female voices to talk to down his headset to, to help him forget about his ex-girlfriend. Flicking through various tones he settles on a robot called SexyKitten who’s gifted with a low pitched purring voice, “Hey, I’m here on my own and I can’t sleep, who’s out there to share this bed with me?” she asks. He’s instantly drawn to her, “I’m in bed next to you and I am glad you can’t sleep, if you were I’d have to wake you up on the inside,” his mouth crinkles upwards as he hears her.
This scene was intended to be creepy and dystopic, a look at how automation will inevitably replace fleshy encounters on Earth. But this is largely a reality we already face, voice notes (where you send a short sound clip to someone else’s phone) are increasingly a feature of communication. The only difference is that the person on the other end of the line is breathing and not made out of wires.
But rather than a mechanic mode of communication, voice notes provide a much warmer alternative to endlessly punching “wuu2” texts into an iPhone. They sound naked and stripped. Like a phone call except you can send them whenever you want, when you’re busy you can slur thoughts down the receiver in a stream of consciousness.
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The first time I used voice notes was when a guy I was seeing started sending them to me. It freaked me out— I didn’t want to reply, because who doesn’t hate the sound of their recorded voice? The way you squeak two pitches higher than you thought you did, say “like” at least five times a sentence and smack spit around your gums. “Bring me a McFlurrrrry?” he would say. His voice croaky and dehydrated, upon hearing it I could imagine him laid in bed, YouTube wrestling clips playing from a laptop propped up on his chest, a cheeky grin exposing his big teeth. Eventually I started sending responses back to him.
I began to like voice notes. With texts it’s easy to over analyze your messages. Do they strike the perfect balance between laidback and flirty? It’s harder to gauge without the tone of voice. Words on a screen can come off curt and removed, even phrases like “that’s nice” can be taken so many ways. You have to warm everything with exclamation marks or emojis. But with voice notes you just talk. Scripting will come off stiff. In return you get to hear those moments when that person trembles into a laugh, the way they pause when thinking about a difficult question.
This idea that you can get to know someone deeper when you can hear the way they express things is nothing new; studies have linked our abilities to recognise honesty and authenticity to speech. Others have connected auditory sense to the uncanny ability to guess a speaker’s age and physical attributes -- down to a woman’s hip-to-waist ratio -- with unbelievable accuracy. One 2010 study, monitored the way people manipulate their voices when they assume the recipient is attractive. Most participants lowered their pitches to a sexier sound.
For me, the “What time are you off to The Red Lion?” and “Is there milk at yours?” voice messages continued until I could “ummm” for ages and not get embarrassed by my inability to get to the point. But I only realized their value when he went back to his Dad’s house by the seaside over the Easter holidays, and I missed him way too much. One night, just like Theodore, I lay on my pillow and listened back to a series of voice notes he had sent. They weren’t romantic, most of them lines from slasher horror The Purge, but they were drenched in familiarity, like smelling someone’s well-worn hoodie.
Texts leave you feeling like the person on the end of the line is less than human. If you want to get close to someone, send them a voice note, maybe you can get stuck inside of their head.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.