(Washington Post illustration; iStockphoto)

When my partner and I first started seeing each other, we did the post-first-few-dates texting dance — the kind that typically warrants obsessive response analysis that’s both stimulating and maddening.

One day an alert popped up on my phone, but it wasn’t a text. It was an audio file through iMessage — a few seconds of recorded audio in the midst of a conversation, more contextual than a voice mail, less ephemeral than a text. His voice echoed out of the speaker: “Wait, weren’t you supposed to be buying me a milkshake?”

He emphasized “me,” with a bubble of a half-stifled laugh on the word “milkshake.” It was in response to a crafty request that he take me for milkshakes. There was no hidden agenda to analyze, no sentence structure and word choice to compare. We went for tea (not milkshakes, sadly) a few hours later and have continued to date since.

A few years ago, Gawker writer Sam Biddle wrote an ode to a supposedly foolproof opening line for Tinder. “There she is,” he’d type to his matches. In a sea of generic “heys,” his line worked.

Like Biddle’s Tinder experiment, I think there’s something to be said for changing up the anticipated script of dating in the texting age. Vocal recognition could be a powerful and underestimated tool when courting someone. It demands that someone be both genuine and clever, and that’s scary. I asked friends to participate in an experiment for the sake of this story — texting a member of the opposite sex with voice memos to report back on their reactions — but the request was met with horrified responses. “You want me to do what?? That’s weird.”

Two single male friends refused to partake (“So weird!” they said). But a colleague sent a memo to her live-in boyfriend who was charmed by the use of technology. (“How’d you do that?!”) They sent a few back and forth before the novelty wore off. 

If you want to try, here’s how you do it: Hold down the microphone icon in the text box of iMessage — sadly this is an iPhone-to-iPhone-only experience, though Android users have a workaround — and speak into your phone as naturally as possible. The first few times you do it, it does feel weird. It’s like the Nextel push-to-talk model of yore, with less satisfying interactive sound effects. The voice memo then appears within your stream as its own conversation bubble, like a .wav file waiting to be played. Voice memos not only appeal to my early-onset nostalgia, they immediately animate the otherwise agonizing cadence of hundreds of texts that can be sent in that “getting to know you” phase.

Studies have long linked our ability to recognize honesty and authenticity to speech. So when it comes to flirting via text, which is how most singles set up their first few dates, maybe the text-only approach is part of the reason courtship can be so hard to read. Comments intended as jokes fall flat, or worse — are read as insults. Quick responses could come off as brush-offs or desperate. A spelling error? Fuggedaboutit

“I always say, it’s okay to have a blind date without seeing a person, but don’t have a deaf date where you’ve never heard their voice,” says Susan Hughes, a professor of psychology at Albright College. “At least pick up the phone and call them first. Their voice is going to tell you a lot about that person.”

Hughes has been doing vocal research for 15 years, with studies that have linked auditory sense to the uncanny ability to guess a speaker’s age and physical attributes — “down to a woman’s hip-to-waist ratio” — with shocking accuracy. In a 2010 study, she and her team monitored the way people manipulate their voices when they assume the recipient is attractive. Across the board, participants changed their pitches to sound lower, sexier when shown a better-looking target. 

In a follow-up, Hughes looked at the concept of “loverese,” the kind of baby talk speech pattern that romantic partners sometimes use with each other.

“If you hear someone talking, even in an overheard phone conversation, you can usually tell if they’re speaking to their significant other,” she says. “They use a different type of voice.”

Hughes asked “newly in love” participants (as in, they’ve verbally declared their mutual affections) to call their significant other and then to call a friend. They then played the recordings for other participants, who, free of context, easily identified the lovers from the pals.

“In this scenario, we found women were lowering their pitch and men were raising their pitch, sort of mimicking by matching each other’s pitch,” she explains. “People are absolutely changing the sounds of their voices when communicating based on the different feelings they have. And other people are adept at picking up when these [changes in pitch] are being spoken to them. We’ve very keen, but I don’t know if we’re always aware of it.”

But when the primary means of communication arrives via text, Hughes worries that we’ve eliminated an essential part of the process of finding “The One.”

“Our voices communicate not just the content of what we say, but our inflections and intentions,” she continues. “We’re losing out on a part of communication to a world of being online and texting. In terms of content, it can be misconstrued so easily when you don’t have those vocal cues.”

In the case of my own relationship, the voice memos — “How long do you cook a chocolate pie?” “What time do you think your laundry will be up?” “How is your morning?” and the like — continued for a few months before they phased into regular phone calls. I never sent my own in return.

I didn’t quite recognize the value in the voice memo, until I found myself listening back on them one week while my partner was abroad. I missed the sound of his voice, which in retrospect had eased into our own state of loverese-lite, melodic and dulcet, always friendly and attentive. Hearing his voice reminded me of his kind blue eyes and broad shoulders. His voice suggested something much more daring and direct than a stream of texts.

Voice memos aren’t here to solve all of your textual dating woes, but a laugh or a sigh are much more telling than emoji. It’s scary to think that our accepted method of courtship communication has left us feeling the person on the other side is a little less human. If you can’t be bothered to pick up the phone (and largely, we prefer not to), give the voice memo a shot. Reply as you might via text, and don’t be shocked if your “that sounds good” sounds a little disingenuous when you say it aloud. The risk and “weird” factor is there, but the reward can be very real. Your voice just might get stuck in their head.

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