Why Are We Hesitant to Record Voices?

Last week in my post “Where Are the Voices From Our Past?” I looked at some of the reasons that we as a culture seem more comfortable with taking photos than with recording the human voice—even the voices of those who mean the most to us.


In the NY Times editorial that sparked both posts, So Many Snapshots, So Few Voices Saved, writer Verlyn Klinkenborg noted that there was a lag of 60 years between 1900 when the introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera made it easy to take snapshots . . .




. . . and the 1960s, when cassette tape recorders made home recording simple and inexpensive, but of course there is nothing difficult about recording the voice today. A smartphone can capture voice as easily as it takes a photo.

So why are people hesitant to record voices? I have some thoughts.



  • Voice is “alive.” It is active and vibrant and multi-dimensional—maybe too alive. We delete photos with press of a button, but it is harder to do that with a recording because a voice feels more real—almost as if we are deleting the person.
  • Capturing voice seems more permanent. Most of us fear having what we say “caught” (or recorded) because we might say something stupid. Some people say they don’t like the sound of their own voice. Hearing our own voice can seem strange. We’ve gotten used to seeing ourselves in photos. Not so with hearing our voice in recordings.
  • Voice/stories need a listener. They come alive when there is a listener. There is an audible difference when we tell our stories to a listener rather than just talking into an unfeeling electronic device. I recently broke both wrists and had been meaning to record the experience before I forgot some of the funny details. But I knew it would be better told to an audience, and it was! (Yes, I recorded my “After the Fall” Toastmasters speech—and yes, even broken wrists elicit some funny moments.)

Voice matters most when it is someone we know and care about. I never play snippets of stories I’ve recorded as a demonstration because that voice is irrelevant unless it is someone the listener knows. Voice is important only when it is a known voice. And when it is, hearing that voice is much more important than what is actually said.

Children are fascinated by recorders and want to record their own voices. What they actually say is irrelevant; even the process of recording is secondary. All they really want is to hear their own voices! My grandson Trenton is a good example: Click on the story “Brother Bites Brother” on my website to hear his recording.

I believe the key to why we are reluctant to record the voices of those we love is best stated by Klinkenborg in his editorial when he says the human voice contains extraordinary intimacy. It has been said that the soul is in the voice. So when we record someone’s voice, it can seem incredibly invasive. Maybe it is so real that we feel we need to ask permission to “capture” it. We don’t want to be caught stealing someone’s soul!

After someone dies, we put together photos of the person, to honor and remember our loved one. But the voice of a departed loved one may be more powerful than a photo. The voice may be too painful to hear, at least for a time, as voice brings a person to memory more strongly and vividly than any photograph.

How many times do we learn that the only recording remaining after someone is gone is an intro on a voice mail message— “you’ve reached Chris, I’m not home, please leave a message.” People will go to almost any length and expense to keep a voice mail intro or message from being erased. Why? Because hearing that voice is so “real.” And, when the time is right, how wonderful it is to be able to hear that voice again and again. As Klinkenborg writes, “The sound alone will say everything someday.”

So, what can we do to help each other recognize and experience the value of the human voice?

Try this: Pick up the phone and call someone important to you; maybe someone you haven’t talked with for a long time. Take time to bask in the joy of listening to his or her voice—not just what is being said, but the voice.

You’ve taken a first step. Now get out your recorder . . .


~~APH: Life, Story, People~~

About today’s contributor: A child of the 60s, Gloria Nussbaum feels she was born at the opportune time to make her the perfect age to be a Personal Historian. She is old enough to remember wringer washing machines and transistor radios but young enough to love her iPad! She discovered the Association of Personal Historians in 2001 and that same year began her business, Real to Reel, recording personal stories. Gloria is passionate about preserving the actual voice of the storyteller.  

Photo credits: Kodak camera by Håkan Svensson. Cassette recorder by Christian Giersing. Permission for both photos under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

This entry was posted in Family Stories, Life Stories, Life Stories as Audio, Personal Historians, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why Are We Hesitant to Record Voices?

  1. Fran Morley says:

    You’re right in that recording is simple on an iPhone or similar device, but I suspect that while most of us know how to record like that, we don’t all know what to do with the recording after that: how to get it from the phone to the computer, how to edit, etc. Are you doing a workshop on audio at the next APH conference? Maybe you can help us with that step!?

  2. Yes, I am doing a workshop on audio at the APH Conference in Washington, DC. Nov 8-12. My session will be on Nov. 11 and I’d love to see you there to help you take the next steps!

  3. Chuck Newman says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the observation about the power of recording voice. I’ve been attaching voice to stickers and patches so that stories can be attached in turn to photos and objects. For example my Uncle’s story of fighting in Germany in WWII will be attached to a sticker that is going on the bayonet he gave to his grandson in the Australian army. Long after he is gone his story can be heard by anyone who has that bayonet. The stickers and patches come from my son’s company stkrit, whose mission is to empower people to attach digital media to their everyday world.

  4. Great post, Gloria.

    Long after people are gone, we will still have their voices—if we record them.

    I look forward to taking your class on November 11.

  5. Chuck, This is a fascinating concept. Thanks for sharing!

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