Want to express your love to your S.O.? Ask out a romantic interest for the first time? Don’t pick up the phone—especially if you know you’ll have to leave a voicemail; open Gmail instead.
In a new paper entitled “To Email or Not to Email,” researchers determined that—despite the perception that emails are a cold, business-like medium not suited for expressing emotions—you should in fact email! Their research showed that writing an email is actually more effective when it comes to expressing romantic feelings than leaving a voicemail, according to the paper, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
In the study, 72 undergraduate students were asked to compose a romantic email and leave a romantic voicemail for their spouse, girlfriend, or boyfriend. (If they didn’t have one, they were asked to write a note asking someone they were interested in out on a date.) The researchers then tested how they reacted physiologically—how their body experienced the emotion—by placing skin sensors on their faces to measure muscle movement associated with positive and negative emotions, and on their feet to measure how much the participants were sweating (an indicator of arousal). They also used a software tool to analyze how emotionally arousing the actual words were that the senders used in their messages.
The researchers found that when the participants left a voicemail or sent an email, there was no difference in positive or negative emotion. However when it came to arousal, people got way more excited sending emails than when they were leaving voicemails. And in terms of the actual content of the romantic messages, sending an email led to stronger and more thoughtful language than leaving a voicemail. (And, surprisingly, there was no difference in arousal between those already in a relationship and those asking someone out for the first time.) Interestingly, the researchers found that even when they asked the undergrads to write a more utilitarian, task-oriented message—for example, about grades or an apartment—the emails contained more emotional content and were still more arousing than voicemail.
“This is not what we expected at all. We expected that using email would be less romantic than voicemail, but the body got a lot more excited when sending emails versus leaving voicemails,” says study author Alan Dennis, Ph.D., professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
Why might this be? The researchers speculate that since we know email is less emotionally expressive and we can’t convey nuances through our vocal tone, we compensate—either consciously or subconsciously—by adding more positive content and by being more explicit, Dennis explains.
Of course, there are other factors that might also be at play. When writing an email, it’s easy to edit what you say, allowing you to craft the exact message you want, unlike having to get it right on the first try over voicemail (because who really wants to re-record?!). Not to mention, the study participants were college-aged, having grown up in a digital environment, and presumably pretty comfortable with using email and texting to express emotion. So while voicemail may be thought of as a more ‘natural’ form of media from a biology standpoint (since it’s closer to face-to-face communication), it may not really be as natural for millennials as for someone of an older generation—something you can likely confirm just by looking at the sheer number of voicemails in your phone from your mom. (Love you, mom!)
If you’re wondering about the effect on the receiver of said messages, you’ll have to wait for a separate, yet-to-be-published study, but it makes sense to assume that more explicit messages that are more emotionally arousing to the sender would be beneficial on the other end as well—and especially if it’s a male on that end, Dennis points out.
“There is other research that shows males tend to not pick up on vocal cues as much as females; they pay more attention to what’s explicitly said. So if you’re trying to convey a romantic message to a male, they’re more likely to ‘get it’ over email,” he says. Yep, we second that!
The next obvious question: What about texting? While the researchers didn’t study it here specifically, it’s a “logical conclusion” that it would also trump over voicemail, Dennis says, since it allows for many of the same advantages as email. (On that note, see these 10 Texting and Online Dating Tips for Tech-Savvy Singles.)
Of course, all of this isn’t to de-value a face-to-face conversation or talking on the phone, but it is a helpful reminder that the medium we choose actually changes what we say. Hopefully, this research will help us step back and reconsider all of the conventional ’email rules’ we’ve been taught, and, with any luck (as far as we’re concerned at least!), it’ll put the final nail in the coffin for the dreaded voicemail.