Do Podcasts Make Us Less Savage?

Audio is a conduit for empathy and I'm here for it.

I still remember a question someone once posed to the popular sex and love advice columnist Dan Savage. Questions on The Savage Lovecast usually revolve around things like awkward breakups and burgeoning sexuality, but this caller instead wanted to share his observation that over the years, Dan seemed to be getting... nicer.

What gives?

In response, Dan Savage accepted the caller’s premise. Yes, he had built an entire accidental career path by mocking others' advice — and yet somewhere along the way something switched. His advice nowadays is just as good but perhaps slightly kinder in tone.

Savage attributed this shift to his podcast. Whereas he used to respond to anonymous letter writers, podcasting introduced the element of the human voice. Something about directly hearing about a person's struggles rather than reading them helped him address questions with more empathy. It’s easy to dismiss someone in writing when you disagree with their worldview (and they’re grammatically challenged to boot.) It’s much harder to do so when that person has given you an audible window into their soul.

Because Dan Savage is human, I'd argue his answer checks out. One study out of UC Berkeley showed that some 24 emotions are detectable in the human voice. Another study found that audio is just as effective as video at conveying thoughtfulness and competency. Still another says audio-first enhances empathetic accuracy.

In other words, when all we can do is listen — with nothing to read, watch, or otherwise observe — we turn our intentions inward and away from things that distract from emotional truth.

I love the Dan Savage example above because it illustrates how someone with an attractive, confident and enveloping voice — presumably someone more discerning when he listens to others — can find himself just as transformed by the humanity in "normal" voices he broadcasts too. Even — or maybe even most of all — when they're a little unrefined, unsure, or awkward.

Because a lot of us have a relationship with voice that's fraught, right? Some of us spend years overcoming speech impediments or trying to eliminate verbal tics. We trip over our words in moments of heightened pressure or emotion. We try not to risk sounding like an idiot when a brief text will suffice (u up?).

But we do so at our peril.

It can take a long time to find one's voice, so to speak, and even more courage to use it consistently. But vocal cords only allow us to hide so much. And therein lies the magic. A voice brings vulnerability to the surface and promises intimate connection in return.

And that's why, I think, voice communication is making a comeback. Why the latest wave of influencers are Clubhouse influencers and short audio messages are the new love letter to friends and family. Not because our voice always puts us in the best light. (There's no Instagram-like filter for voices just yet.) But the human voice does create authentic connection — something we’re starved for more than ever. Research even agrees we feel better when we engage it which — when it comes to well-being and connectivity — is a welcome shift.

In other words, if you haven’t sent someone an audio message lately?

Now’s the time.

Related Reading:

The Pleasure of Conversing via a Voice Text by Rachel Syme
How to Send a Sexy Audio Message by Emilia Petrarca