Since the start of the pandemic, the number of voice messages I have made and received has increased substantially. They have helped me to keep in touch with family, friends, and colleagues, despite being physically distanced from one another. Moreover, after sitting behind the computer all day, the last thing I want to do is send emails and text messages at night.
Just this week, one friend recorded a voice message while walking in the forest, leaves crunching under her feet. Another friend was emptying the dishwasher, her adorable 6-year old saying “Hello Jessica!” in the background. My sister-in-law began her message irritated, as her cat repeatedly rubbed his face against her phone and meowed into the speaker. Each time I listen to a voice message, I feel like I am closer to the other person, like I am right there with them in the forest, in their kitchen, or cuddling their cat.
It turns out, I am not alone. Research shows that connecting to others with our voice, rather than text, has beneficial effects on our experienced social connection and well-being. For example, biological anthropologist Seltzer and colleagues showed (in 2012) that girls who completed a stress task experienced decreased stress hormones, increased oxytocin (the 'love' hormone), and felt more calm and relaxed, after speaking with their moms on the phone, compared to girls who texted with their moms. In another study, girls who spoke to their moms on the phone showed the same physiological reactions as girls who had actually been hugged by their moms!
Recently, psychologists Kumar and Epley showed that participants who reconnected with an old friend, or chatted with a stranger, created stronger social bonds when the communication was voice-based compared to text-based. Interestingly, there was no difference between communication with visual cues (video calls) and communication with audio only (voice calls), showing that the key ingredient is the other person’s voice. Prior research has shown that voice conveys humanizing cues (e.g., warmth) that foster deeper social connection, and additional visual cues do not bolster effects.
With the pandemic expected to continue for the coming months, and most of us relying more and more on technology, this research underscores the importance of choosing wisely how we use it, and shows that voice-based communication can foster and maintain our social connections, despite social distancing.
Funny enough, just as I sat down to write this column, my phone rang. It was my colleague and former 'roomy' Ghislaine Schyns, who has a warm voice and a contagious laugh. She had a quick work-related question, and we briefly talked about how we were doing. “Sorry that I called you instead of sending an email,” she said. “No,” I told her, “I’m so glad you did. It’s so good to hear your voice.”
Jessica Alleva, Assistant Professor at fhe faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience