How to build digital connections

Mental Health

As more of us than ever are working remotely, it’s natural to miss those social moments with colleagues by the water cooler. But technology is here to help…

The sound of my ringtone gives me anxiety. Who dares to call ‘just to talk’? What’s wrong with a text? Or a handwritten letter? Anything – and I mean anything – but a phone call, I beg you!

I know I’m not the only one who avoids talking on the phone. Ofcom revealed that a quarter of people make less than five mobile calls a month, with 6% of people not making any at all. And those who do pick up the phone? Well, two-thirds of them hang up in less than 90 seconds. Those are my kind of people.

Video calls are less stressful, but like the rest of the socially distanced world, I’m a bit overwhelmed with virtual chats these days. They eat into my working day, and feel emotionally exhausting. I’ve got Zoom fatigue, and I think it’s getting worse.

Luckily, I’ve found an alternative. One that keeps me in contact with the outside world, but doesn’t drain my time and energy. May I introduce, the humble voice note.

What are voice notes?

Voice notes are recorded messages that can be sent between phone contacts. Instead of typing out a text message, you use the phone microphone to record yourself talking, and send it to the person you’re texting. It’s a function available on most messaging services such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. So what are the benefits?

Emotional support

I got hooked on voice notes when I started working from home a few years ago. I was running my own business for the first time, and I missed the emotional support of a traditional work environment. Being my own boss was great until I had to make decisions, because I had no one to bounce ideas off. Soon, I built up a network of virtual colleagues who were happy to receive my vocal rants, million-dollar ideas, and general chit-chat, on a daily basis. Most of them sent me voice notes back, and for a lonely freelancer like me, the ongoing digital ping-pong match has been a lifesaver.

Self-expression

While the convenience factor of voice notes is debatable – they’re quicker than texting, but not always appropriate for the listener if they’re in public without headphones – they offer so much more nuance than a text message or email. There’s no need for emojis when you can vocally express sarcasm, humour, and empathy. In general, a conversation is considered much more effective (when compared to texting) at conveying genuine love and gratitude. One study found that college students who spent a significant amount of time texting were less satisfied with their relationship than other couples.

Active and engaged listening

Voice notes are like conversations with a cherry on top. There’s a delay between listening to the audio and responding — and this has a powerful effect on your brain. I spoke to Kirsty Hulse, founder of Roar! Training, to learn more about the neurological benefit of voice notes. She says: “In conversations, we’re listening to the other person rather than generating. Listening to a voice note reduces our cognitive load, because we get the experience of hearing a familiar voice, and feeling that closeness, but we don’t need to consider our response in that moment. That allows us to actively listen. We can truly hear what the person is saying, instead of listening to respond.”

We get the experience of hearing a familiar voice, and feeling that closeness, but we don’t need to consider our response in that moment

This leads to a deeper connection, something that home workers are craving right now. It makes sense, then, that I feel less isolated when I’m talking — and more importantly, listening — to my mates via voice notes. It also explains why the time delay between responses makes it a much less draining interaction than those on Zoom or FaceTime.

A positive alternative to texting

Some businesses are using voice notes to communicate orally as opposed to in writing, and dating app users are using voice notes to get to know prospective partners before they meet in real life. As well as being good for emotional connectivity, they are a healthy replacement for screen time. “The less time spent looking at screens the better,” says Kirsty “because blue light messes with our melatonin.” Instead of talking to your friends via text, consider recording a voice message instead. It allows you to avert your gaze from blue light, and take in the world around you.

Of course, voice notes aren’t for everyone. It can be worth asking permission before sending one, because they can make some people panic about replying. If you’ve got social anxiety, or low self-esteem, hearing the sound of your own voice might fill you with dread. Kirsty says: “We’ve all got our preferred ways of communicating, and that’s OK!”

The important thing is to find a way of communicating that works best for you – part of taking care of yourself is ensuring you get the human contact we all need, even when you can’t hang out in person. So give technology a try, and voice your thoughts.


Kirsty Hulse is a keynote speaker, and founder of Roar! Training. She uses neuroscience to empower teams and support businesses.


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