But a new study suggests that if my aim is to keep my relationships strong and healthy, texting may not be enough. To stay close at a time when we all need companionship and support, we’re better off picking up the phone or jumping on a video call so we can actually hear another person’s voice.
In the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, participants imagined having a conversation with a friend they hadn’t been in touch with for at least two years. They predicted how awkward or enjoyable it would be and how close they’d feel if they connected by phone vs. email. They also said which medium they’d prefer to use.
Then, they were randomly assigned to connect with their old friend on the phone or email and to report back on their experience. Most people anticipated talking by phone would be more uncomfortable for them. But surprisingly, those who spoke on the phone were happier with the exchange, felt closer to the other person and felt no more uncomfortable than those who’d emailed. This was true even for people who initially said they preferred to email rather than call.
“We think it’s going to be awkward to talk to somebody, but that just turns out not to be the case,” said Amit Kumar, lead author of the study. “Instead … people form significantly stronger bonds when they’re talking on the phone than when communicating over email.”
This finding also held true for people connecting with someone they didn’t know at all, according to another part of the study.
Participants were told they’d be using voice chat, video chat or text chat to get to know a stranger. They were asked to predict what the experience would be like and how close they might become to the person. Then, they were paired with a stranger to do a “fast friends” exercise, asking and answering increasingly personal questions, such as “What would constitute the ‘perfect’ day for you?” and “What is one of the more embarrassing moments in your life?”
People assigned to voice chat or video chat expected conversations to be more awkward and not bring any more closeness than those assigned to text chat. But they were wrong. Being able to hear people’s voices made them feel significantly closer to the stranger and turned out not to be more awkward than text-chatting.
Even though video chatting might seem better than audio alone (because people could see each other’s faces), it didn’t seem to matter — the two methods had similar results.
These experiments suggest that hearing someone’s voice increases intimacy.
“There are linguistic cues that come through someone’s voice that suggest a feeling and thinking mind,” said Kumar. “And since connecting with somebody means getting a little closer to their mind, voice-based communication makes that easier or more likely.”
He pointed to other research that also shows the importance of voice in our communication. For example, people asked to evaluate a potential job applicant found the applicant to be more thoughtful, intelligent and competent if they’d heard rather than read the person’s job pitch. Similar to Kumar’s study, adding a video to the pitch was no more impactful than hearing the pitch without one.
In another study, people who listened to someone express a political viewpoint that they disagreed with were less likely to dehumanize that person than people who simply read the transcript of their argument. This suggests that talking to people with different political ideas (rather than texting or responding to them on Facebook) might help bridge divides.
One reason for this is that our voices convey myriad emotions, which helps us understand one another better and feel more empathic. In fact, at least one study found that voice-only communications may be superior to those that include video, because voices help people read others’ emotions more accurately.
Kumar said we should be intentional about how we interact with others, and we shouldn’t let fears of awkwardness dictate how we communicate.
“People can sometimes be relatively insensitive to the effect of their communication media on their experience,” said Kumar. “But if their goal is to become closer to someone, they’d be smarter to pay attention to that.”
Texting can be useful if you need to just pass on a quick message or set up a time to talk with someone, he said.
But if you want stronger social connections — and the happiness and well-being that come with those — calling is the better way to reach out, especially now, when it can be hard to be close to those we care about.
“We’re living in a time when loneliness is an increasing concern, and people need to know what to do about it,” said Kumar. “When it comes to maintaining and building the social relationships that are so integral to well-being, folks would be wise to connect with others using their voices — by talking rather than typing.”
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