I spent last winter in Mexico. I stayed in an apartment with Wi-Fi, but chose to put my unlimited Verizon service on hold. Always game for living like a local, I got a local Telcel plan, which wasn’t unlimited. The rationing reminded me of the days of 300 minutes of talk time when I’d stay up late and call friends after 10 pm because calls were free. My 2020 version of rationing minutes and data meant that I didn’t casually scroll through social media. I arranged phone dates in advance and used WhatsApp or FaceTime when I was in my apartment. While out in the city, my phone existed only to count steps and take photos. I’m easily distracted by noise from multiple directions and because I was in Mexico to work on a book, stepping away from the noise of constant connectivity felt like freedom.
Fast forward to a hasty mid-March exit that consisted of driving from the middle of Mexico to my home in Northern California with a new-to-me street dog. When I popped my Verizon chip back into my phone in Laredo, Texas, the thing lit up like a Vegas slot machine. I had to mute text alerts while driving, and when I stopped for gas I sometimes had over 100 unread messages.
By far the most jarring aspect of reentry into a pandemic-laden United States was the sudden influx of requests for virtual get-togethers. Seeing unmasked human faces outside our households felt reassuring, even if those faces were just a grid on a computer screen. But the Zoom learning curve was steep for group get-togethers. There always seemed to be a problem with something, often the Zoom audio, leaving the rest of the group screaming in not quite unison, “We can’t hear you!!!” as if our volume and repetition could fix a speaker issue. We blamed Zoom and tried Google Hangouts, but with so many people there was always a problem with something.
Does Anyone Really Like Zoom?
According to Emily Anhalt, clinical psychologist and cofounder of Coa, a gym for emotional fitness, nobody is really living their best social life on Zoom. Even for extreme extroverts, Zoom doesn’t fill the human need for connection, though extroverts are more willing to use the tools we have available right now, because something is better than nothing.
Anhalt describes herself as an intense extrovert and her partner as an intense introvert. Through observations from her personal life combined with her private practice, Anhalt is witnessing firsthand how people move through the strangeness of 2020 is different ways, and while introvert and extrovert are descriptive, it’s not nuanced enough for her. “The words introvert and extrovert get used as these giant buckets to encompass all kinds of different people,” she says, “and the way I define the difference between introvert and extrovert is not how much a person likes people or how much they want to be social, but rather does being with people drain their battery or fill their battery.”
For Some, the Safety Is in Lower Numbers
Regardless of the issues with the glitchy technology, my constitution can’t handle crosstalk. When it happens at a real-life dinner party I can lean into the person next to me for a deeper conversation. At a large party I’m rarely at the center of the action, and prefer instead to grab a friend or two and a plate of appetizers and head to a quiet corner. Those strategies don’t work on Zoom. Often two or three people start speaking at the same time and then everyone says, “Sorry, you go,” before an awkward pause when everyone starts speaking again at the same time.
Anhalt says that everyone has a different threshold for the number of people they like to interact with, and as a therapist she gives permission for individuals to define that for themselves. She says, “Some do better going deep with one person and others feel energized by a group—the group helps them feel more in touch with their own ideas and excitement.”
I find one-on-one video chats more manageable, and I enjoyed them as a connecting-during-the-pandemic alternative until I found an option that satisfied more of my pandemic needs for connection and interaction: the voice message.
Voicemail? Voice Message? Voice Memo?
My voicemail box is usually full, mostly because I forget about them as they arrive. My ringer is silenced 99 percent of the time and I rarely engage in a conversation that wasn’t planned in advance. It’s not antisocial, I just like space. I also like to be present when having a conversation, so planning ahead works for me.
My friend Christine taught me about using WhatsApp to leave extended voice messages. Christine and I met just as the Covid pandemic was heating up, and the only IRL time we spent together was 90 minutes on an airport shuttle. I crammed into the middle seat and said “hi” in that awkward way you do when sitting almost on a stranger’s lap, but we started talking and exchanged hugs and numbers before I got out at my stop because we knew our conversation was just warming up.
Christine and I started with text messages but then she left me a voice memo. It was awesome—hearing her voice and tone—but I texted back. After she left me a few more voice memos, I experimented and left one in exchange, wondering aloud if I was doing it right. My first few were short—a couple minutes, max—but I found my legs and before long my messages crept into the 10-minute range. Suddenly, we were having a conversation, but on our time.
The pacing reminded me of old-fashioned letter writing, but verbal, and with the convenience of technology—no waiting for the postman. I introduced this to a few other friends and it stuck. But with others, it didn’t.
Technology Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
In an effort to understand the nuance of how humans relate to each other when mediated by technology, I reached out to Kristine Gloria, associate director of emerging technologies at Aspen Digital. Gloria says she’s always been interested in mediated technology and the influence it has on our individual communications, and says that if she was asked pre-Covid about the line between digital and offline life she’d say it was negligible, but now that line has become so blurred that “it’s becoming more and more pronounced that there has to be a stop—the ability to walk away from mediated interactions.” Gloria says that a midday walk away from screens used to be seen as something that was nice to have, but now it’s a must have.
“There’s a digital self-care component that we all have to master,” Gloria says and that’s going to differ based not only on aspects of a person’s personality, but where they are in life developmentally. “Tech companies are trying,” Gloria says, “Zoom is giving as many options as possible so users can customize, but that’s one way technology falls short—it’s just not customizable to the levels we need it to be.
Gloria’a two young children are doing preschool on Zoom and they’re doing remarkably well with it. “Couldn’t they just watch Sesame Street?” I asked her, and although we shared a laugh about it, the answer is no, there does have to be an interactive component for them developmentally. Gloria predicts that technology is only going to be more a part of our lives. “It’s not like we’re all going to become Luddites post-Covid,” Gloria says, “And the children will have a better skillset because of the research we’re doing now.”
While we’ve been quarantining, isolating, and digitally working and socializing, The Aspen Institute has been busy. In April they put on a webinar called “Intimacy in Isolation: How Technologies are Impacting Human Connection During the Pandemic,” and in August they had a virtual event called “Virtually Alone: The Future of Human Connection.”
Gloria concluded our chat by saying, “Because people are so nuanced, technology cannot be the solution. when you create a technology, you’re making one solution that’s supposed to scale and fit a generalized population, but we’re learning that this is not a generalizable experience.”
Making the Most of What We Have
A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study confirmed that the platforms Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram decreased well-being and increased anxiety and depression. But 2018 feels like another planet compared to 2020, and the social landscape has changed, perhaps irreversibly. Of course opting for face-to-face interaction over virtual friendships isn’t as easy as it was in the land far away known as January 2020, and though many people promise to limit social media time or detox altogether, it’s never been simple to do so—though the premise and pressure to social-media detox is nearly as old as the platforms themselves.
Time moves slow and fast during the pandemic, and Netflix’s new Social Distance captured the bizarreness of our lives almost in real time. Coupled with Social Dilemma, it’s hard to know what to do and how to stay healthy. How bad are online interactions, especially if that’s all we have? Linda K. Kaye, a cyberpsychology academic in the department of psychology at Edge Hill University (UK), has reassuring insight.
Kaye’s research is primarily in the area of the psychology of digital gaming and online behavior, and in particular she’s interested in how online technologies support social inclusion and well-being. Kaye did a study of university students showing the psychosocial implications of WhatsApp.
The study published, ironically, at the beginning of the pandemic, though the research began years prior, and concludes that “online bonding through WhatsApp was negatively related to loneliness, and positively with psychological well-being, self-esteem and social competence.” It turns out that WhatsApp encourages bonding between users and increases social capital and competence and decreases isolation.
Kaye says that my preferred way of connecting during the pandemic—through the voice memo feature on any of the messaging apps—makes sense because it gives the best of both worlds. Using voice to connect on a personal level is akin to a conversation, yet without the parameters of space and time. “We tend to say face-to-face communication is going to be much better than Skype,” Kaye says, “but when you have friends in different time zones it makes some communication better than nothing.”
Together, Apart, and Apart Together
There is no right way to connect with people. It’s more important that we identify what works for us, and find others who want to connect in the same or similar ways. It used to be that friendships would solidify over a shared love of something—live music, working out together, sifting through thrift stores, or adventuring abroad—so while that’s on hold, we need to find new methods to stay connected.
If you haven’t tried voice memos yet, I hope I’ve convinced you to give it a shot. Your friend with three kids might not have time to talk, but she’ll love to hear your voice telling her she’s doing a great job juggling both her work and her kids’ schooling. Your grandma across the country might go to bed early, but sending her a message that she can wake up to and replay over and over will make her day, and I guarantee it will be well worth your 45-second investment.
There are any number of ways to get started with voice memos, but there are few options that never go out of style and usually hit the spot: “Thank you,” “I love you,” and “I miss you” are terrific places to start.