For its many flaws, it’s hard to deny that technology has improved our ability to communicate with one another. We now have a huge range of options when it comes to speaking to our friends and family, whether we’re texting, IMing, or sending them emails.
With such a smorgasbord of choices available to us, it can be easy to forget the humble phone call. And according to new work published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, a reticence to pick up the phone might also be robbing us of stronger connections with those we love.
In their first study, Amit Kumar from the University of Texas at Austin and Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago looked at the experience of reconnecting with an old friend. Participants were first asked to think of someone they had fallen out of touch with, stating how long it had been since they interacted and rating the current closeness of their relationship.
Participants then imagined reconnecting with their old friend, and were asked whether they would prefer to contact them by phone or email and how they felt the interaction would go. They were then randomly assigned to actually connect with the friend either via email or by phone over the next week.
Even though the majority of participants believed they would form a stronger bond over the phone than via email, 67% stated they would prefer to get in touch by email (a number that rose to 72% among participants who successfully completed the full experiment). This may be because of perceived awkwardness: the majority also felt that a phone call would be more awkward. Of the participants who managed to get in touch with an old friend, those assigned to the phone condition reported feeling a significantly stronger bond than those assigned to the email condition — and in the end felt no more awkward.
The next study looked at new friends. Participants were put into pairs and assigned to one of three groups — text chat, audio chat, or video chat. To get close to their new friend, participants interacted via a “sharing game”, in which both parties ask and answer intimate questions (e.g. “can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?”). Before completing the tasks, participants predicted how well they would get to know their partner, how much they would enjoy the conversation, how strong a bond it would foster, and how awkward it would be to chat.
Although participants did not expect different outcomes across the different forms of communication, they again felt more connected with their partner via voice-based media than when simply using text. Participants anticipated awkwardness across all three categories (which may be more to do with the very intimate and unusual task than with specific communication methods themselves), though those expectations were unfounded.
In a final study, participants were again asked to imagine reconnecting with an old friend, rating how connected or awkward they expected to feel over email or phone and indicating their preferred method on a seven-point scale. The results suggested that expectations are a key driver of our choices — the more participants expected to feel connected via phone or email, the more they preferred to communicate in that form, and the more awkward they anticipated feeling the more likely they were to avoid that method.
The study suggests that worries about negative interactions could make people avoid potentially meaningful phone chats. But it doesn’t explain why calls are apparently so powerful. What is it about voice-based chats that make them so fulfilling? And do new forms of communication such as voice notes — voice recordings almost like voicemail — have the same effect? It would be worth exploring whether this kind of asynchronous communication has similar benefits to real-time audio and video calls.
There are plenty of jokes and memes about younger generations hating voice calls, and consumer research has suggested that many of us do indeed use our devices for everything other than speaking on the phone. The idea that people (sometimes incorrectly) anticipate awkwardness is not too much of a reach and is backed up by findings from this paper.
But there are likely to be some individual differences here which haven’t been fully explored. A voice note might allow someone who’s shy and really does hate phone calls to communicate within their boundaries. For others, instant messaging might make them feel more present in their loved ones’ daily lives. And a long email back-and-forth might take the pressure off needing to reply instantly and give time to engage more deeply, potentially fostering a more philosophical bent to a conversation. Personality and context surely has a role to play here — and might make interesting grounds for future research into the nuances of digital communication.