LOUISE O'NEILL: If the quantity of voice notes I send daily is anything to go by, I am developing an unhealthy dependence on them

On a recent episode of one of my favourite podcasts, the High Low, the journalists Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes discussed the increasing popularity of sending voice notes on WhatsApp.

Afterwards, I scrolled back through my old Chats, and found them to be littered with voice notes, which was striking to me for one reason — I hate talking on the phone.

We didn’t have a house number when I was a child because my father found the idea of being easily contactable ‘unnecessary’, so I missed out on the formative experience of spending hours and hours chatting to my friends after school (“and how do you still have anything to talk about? Didn’t you spend the whole day together?”) and being yelled at by my parents for running up huge phone bills.

By the time I got my first block of a mobile phone at age 15, everyone had already embraced texting.

Friends and, perhaps more importantly, potential boyfriends, would rather have sent you a message than subject you to an awkward, potentially hive-inducing conversation.

I did have one boyfriend who would ring me regularly, much to my chagrin, and I started to keep a notebook on me at all times, with lists of interesting topics to discuss, lest we find ourselves with any moments of silence to fill and I died of self-consciousness. As an adult, I am one of the Millennials who shares memes about how horrendous talking on the phone is.

(Example — When is it acceptable to phone me? A) Someone has died. B) You’re offering me a dream job. C) You are Ryan Gosling asking me out. D) You’re calling me from the future with important info to save my life. The answer is always - E) None of these are acceptable, obviously. Never phone me again, you f**king monster.)

One of my closest friends was having a difficult time at work recently and I asked if she wanted me to call her and she texted back, aghast, “Get a grip, Louise. Things aren’t that bad yet.”

And don’t even get me started on voice mails! If you leave one, I will instantly assume that you are either trapped down a well or you’ve heard tell from a reliable source that the Apocalypse is coming.

So yes, it’s fair to say that I find phone calls anxiety-provoking and inconvenient, especially if someone rings a person (me) without organising a specific time so that the person (me) can build up their nerve. And yet.... well, I really love voice notes.

The joy of hearing someone else’s voice without having to worry about what you will immediately say in return, the convenience of being able to send them while you’re walking around town, the sheer ease of sending a two minute voice note rather than having to type for 30 minutes.

If the quantity of voice notes that I send on a daily basis is anything to go by, then I am developing a rather unhealthy dependence on them, and my friends have reported similar habits forming.

Have we become so lazy that even texting has become too arduous a task? Or is something deeper at play here? Forgive me for going all armchair psychologist on you, but I think there is.

From forging friendships on MSN Messenger as teenagers, through Bebo and Facebook and Twitter in our twenties and thirties, not to mention our increasing phobia about speaking on the phone, my generation has found ingenious methods of keeping an emotional distance between ourselves and others.

I wonder if the reason that we don’t like to make phone calls is because we are afraid of making a mistake. A text message can be carefully written and re-written, a voice note can be deleted and attempted again if you stutter or fumble over a word.

There is a buffer of time and space in which we can calculate our responses, making ourselves sound more funny and clever and interesting than we might come across in real time, and that is key for a generation that is more knowledgeable and self aware about branding than companies with marketing budgets worth millions of dollars.

We know exactly how we want to present ourselves; our Instagram feeds, a carefully curated collection of flattering photos. This is who I am. This is how I want the world to see me.

I want to seem perfect. I don’t want you to know that I’m tired or I’m impatient, that I get easily overwhelmed, or that I feel scared sometimes. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I would wager that fear of vulnerability is a driving force behind our attempts to control our own narratives, using technology as a way of doing so.

We use tech to keep people at a distance because we know that being truly vulnerable with someone means revealing aspects of ourselves that we would rather not admit to, something that seems all the more terrifying in a world that demands you place a filter over your face, your body, and yes, your emotions.

Vulnerability might be essential for all the things we say we want - love, intimacy, connection - but we know that in our vulnerability, we are giving another person the potential power to devastate us.

Perhaps, we tell ourselves, as we text and voice note and tweet and DM and comment and like and share, perhaps it’s safer to stay on our own. Perhaps it is better to be lonely than to be seen for who we truly are, and to be found lacking.

If the quantity of voice notes that I send on a daily basis is anything to go by, then I am developing a rather unhealthy dependence on them


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