girl listening to voicemail, against a colourful background

I have a confession to make: I love voicemails.

I’m fully aware that I’m in the minority, but I hate it when people call me and don’t leave one.

How do I know what the caller really wants otherwise?! They can text, but this gives no indication of tone. Or, they can voice note on WhatsApp, but then they can see when I’ve listened, which – to me – can feel like an invasion of privacy, depending who it is.

Voicemails mean you can hear a person’s voice and know exactly what they want, and how they feel about it.

However, not many people seem to share my love for the slowly dying out method of communication. 

In fact, a study found that 85% of Gen Z don’t view phone calls as being an important function of their phone, and 75% of millennials avoid phone calls if they can.

Presumably, then, voicemails are very low down on the list of importance. But what is it about them that everyone (other than me) hates?

Leaving a voicemail

‘The challenge of leaving a voicemail applies to a wide cross-section of people – not just those who are seen to be ‘shy’ or lacking confidence,’ says Emma Jenkings, mediator and conflict coach.  

‘Generally, when you call someone you expect a bit of small talk with the other person before discussing the core reason for calling. 

‘But there is no “warm up” time with a voicemail. Instead, there is a time requirement to launch into the reason for calling, whilst ensuring that you remember to identify yourself and give details of how to contact you accurately, before you get cut off by the machine.’

To add to the pressure, if someone is making a call, they’re generally hoping for an answer. To get a voicemail instead, can catch us off guard and see us feeling unprepared.

‘This surprise and time pressure can feel overwhelming for many people,’ says Emma. ‘Even those who are seen to be outgoing, self-assured and sociable.’

It is perhaps for this reason that, increasingly, voice notes increasingly seem like the more socially preferred means of leaving a recorded message – especially with younger people.

Voicenotes, Emma explains, come with some benefits for the senders.

‘The distinction between voicemails and ‘voice notes, is that – like with a phone call – you have some time beforehand to think through what you want to say,’ she says.

‘You also tend to have a very easy option to delete the voice note and start again before they listen to it. Whereas, if you leave a voicemail and hang up, it can’t be undone.’

That un-deletable aspect of the voicemail may well play a big part of it – once it’s off into the atmosphere, that’s that – and you can’t even listen back to it and cringe…

But what about receiving them?

‘Some people feel that voicemails invade their personal time and space. They feel it’s intrusive and so it can create stress or anxiety,’ explains Maya Zack, peak performance specialist, expert mindset coach and hypnotherapist.

‘Firstly,’ she says, ‘it requires the person to listen, which means they might need to stop what they’re doing in order to engage.

‘So they feel like this time is ‘demanded’ of them, and that the sender’s time is prioritised over theirs.  Sometimes it’s even a physical ‘demand’ – for example, if you’re in public you can’t always listen to the message, or you might have to stop listening to music to do so.

‘It also creates the feeling that one can’t simply read it and choose to ignore or engage later,’ she continues. ‘There’s a feeling of pressure to respond immediately, and sometimes with sending a voice message back rather than text. So it makes one feel or fear feeling they’re being rude if they don’t feel like doing that.’

According to Maya, another reason some people dislike voicemails is because they’re often just not as succinct as texts can be. They take longer to listen to, than a well thought out text takes to read.

There can also be a lot of info to take in, which might be difficult to remember, especially if you don’t have a pen handy. It’s often simply easier to have the information in front of you, instead of having to go back and listen to the whole recording again just to find a specific detail you need.

However, the same could be said about voice notes – and voicemails don’t come with a ‘blue tick’, showing when the message has been listened to. That could be one thing in their favour, agrees Maya.

The anxiety

Lots of people talk about the feeling of anxiety that hits when they see someone has left them a voicemail.

‘Since people tend to use mostly texts these days, receiving a voicemail can also create anxiety,’ says Maya, ‘because people are expecting it to be particularly important, and often bad news.’

However, for others (myself included) a missed call with no follow up, or any further information is far more worrisome. Being given no reason for the call leaves it open to being all sorts of awful news, or – in theory, if you’re an anxious person – it might make you wonder whether that the person is so angry with you, they couldn’t even bring themselves to leave a message.

A voicemail to confirm that this isn’t the case, would help.

However, there is anxiety wrapped up in leaving a voicemail, as well as receiving one.

‘Many people experience anxiety about how they speak, how they perceive that they sound when they speak, and anxiety about saying the right or wrong thing,’ says psychotherapist Heather Darwall-Smith.

‘In addition, speaking to voicemail can feel like talking into a void,’ she says, ‘as there is no way of registering how the other person receives your message or even controlling that the right person receives your message.

Texts instead of voicemails

Lots of people diss voicemails, asking why the caller didn’t just drop them a simple text instead, when they didn’t pick up.

However, while it might feel less formal and be more convenient in some ways, the issue with texting is that there’s no room for tone. A voicemail, at least, lets you hear a person’s voice and a ‘call me back’ can sounds cheery, as opposed to threatening via text.

‘Yes, lack of tone in text is a serious issue,’ says Heather. ‘The number of clients who have full-blown arguments by text never ceases to amaze me.

‘That happens because text communication is one dimensional. To interpret someone’s meaning, having a sense of the person who is speaking, making eye contact, feeling emotion, as well as tracking their body language (which we unconsciously do all the time) gives the words dimension, intonation and a sense of meaning.’

And, voicemails give you some of that.

The rise of text communication also has bigger implications than just in the moment communication breakdown.

‘Teens and those in their early 20s experience serious issues in interpersonal dynamics by running whole relationships via text,’ Heather says. ‘This issue is spreading throughout all age groups.’ 

Who is more likely to prefer a voicemail?

Research carried out by Dr Daria Kuss at Nottingham Trent University has shown that there are clear age related differences in smartphone use, with the older generation being more likely to make calls in comparison to the younger generation, indicating they may be more likely to use voicemails as well.

‘Young adults, as opposed to older people, are less inclined to compromise on their independence,’observes Emma. ‘They like to be more in charge of their time and be less ‘obliged’ to answer to anyone. So they prefer the less ‘demanding’ text.’

It used to be that people who had less confidence in interpersonal relationships and communication would be thought to prefer text over voicemail. This would give them the option of ‘hiding’ behind the text without much, what feels like, personal exposure.

However, nowadays, although those who are insecure around communication or who are introverts would probably prefer texts, not all those who prefer texts are introverts or insecure… and not all extroverts or those who are very chatty would prefer voicemail.

‘Because (any type of) messaging is so basic and integral to everyday communication now, and since it does affect how one feels they need to respond and when – preference is often down to their state of mind, lifestyle or even momentary circumstances, rather than ‘kind of person’ they are,’ Emma concludes.

So, are voicemails really dead? All things considered, it seems that they’re certainly on their way out – unless you are of a certain generation, or me.

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