A holdover from before the age of email, voice mail is perhaps the most loathed (and disused) communications tool at our disposal in 2017. Consider sentiments such as these:

“I never listen to my voicemails. It’s too time-consuming.”

“I don’t bother leaving voicemails. No one listens to them anyway.”

“I haven’t set up my voice mailbox. I wouldn’t even know how.”

Companies including Coca-Cola, Bloomberg and JPMorgan Chase have largely eliminated voice mail for their employees, typically to great acclaim. The argument, of course, is that voice mail is prehistoric and that email and text messaging have eliminated the need for it. Voice mail, with its cumbersome access numbers and passcodes, not to mention its linear method for listening to messages, is simply a time-waster. And while one could argue that replacing a fax machine with email is an upgrade with zero downsides, suggestions that email is a comparable substitute for voicemail are inaccurate.

What does voicemail have that email and texting do not? Tone. And I don’t mean dial tone. I mean vocal tone. In the business-etiquette training workshops I offer around the U.S., one of the consistent complaints I hear from my students is that they regularly receive emails that come across as rude. Often, this perception of lack of politeness is the result of a misunderstanding. What is meant to be concise comes off as curt. What is meant to be a question comes off as a demand. What is meant to be a rationale comes off as an excuse. And in each of these cases, the missing element is the human voice…something that would help bridge the digital gap easily and effectively. Consider the following one-line email:

We missed you at the meeting today.

How would you interpret that statement? As a thoughtful check-in? A perplexed inquiry? A gentle chastisement of someone’s absence? A frustrated observation?

I challenge you to answer that question definitively. I don’t think you can. Now try saying the line aloud, using as many different intonations as you can. How many versions of that statement can you create? Your voice inflection gives the listener keys to gauging your state of mind. Could you accomplish the equivalent via email? With effort, yes. Does everyone make the time to write thoughtful, nuanced emails that remove all possibility for misinterpretation? Based on the responses I receive in my training classes, absolutely not.

Is there subtext to your message? Is there an opportunity for the recipient to perceive your meaning incorrectly? Is a face-to-face conversation out of the question due to your being in different locations? If so, voicemail is clearly the superior option to email or texting. The takeaway here? Don’t be afraid to leave them—and listen to them.

What do you think? Are there instances where you would use voicemail as your preferred means of communication versus email? Let me know! And in my next post, I’ll discuss the art of perfect voicemail—both incoming and outgoing.