Researchers say calling on the phone instead of texting leads to a stronger social connection—and isn’t nearly as awkward as we fear.
By Li Tong Low
Have you picked up the phone today?
Social connection is important for our well-being and health, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Closed borders, state lockdowns, and social distancing have separated people physically; thankfully, technology has provided us with communication tools to stay connected at a distance. However, different tools can have different effects on social connection.
Researchers from University of Texas at Austin and University of Chicago have found that voice-based tools (e.g., phone call, video call) foster stronger feelings of social connection than text-based tools (e.g., text message, email), but people often prefer to use text-based tools.
Communication tools and social connection
Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley conducted three studies to examine people’s expectations, experiences, and preferences for voice-based and text-based communication tools. First, the researchers asked 200 participants to contact an old friend by phone or email, and about half of the participants actually did.
Before contacting the friend, nearly two-thirds of the participants indicated a preference for email over phone calls, likely because they expected more awkward interactions on the phone; however, they also expected more connected feelings via phone call. After contacting the friend, participants who used the phone indeed experienced stronger feelings of social connection than those who used email, but importantly, their interactions were not more awkward.
Second, the researchers paired up 302 participants, all strangers to each other. The researchers asked each participant pair to have a live chat via text message, voice call, or video call to share their answers to some personal questions (e.g., a favorite memory, an embarrassing moment, a time they cried in front of others).
Before the conversation, all three participant groups expected similar levels of connectedness and awkwardness. After the conversation, voice call users and video call users reported stronger feelings of social connection than those who texted, but again, their interactions were not more awkward. Moreover, video call users reported similar levels of connectedness and awkwardness as voice call users.
Third, the researchers asked 101 participants to imagine contacting an old friend over phone and email. When asked to indicate preference for the communication tools, those who expected greater awkwardness via phone had a stronger preference for email, whereas those who expected greater connectedness via phone had a stronger preference for the phone.
Voice connects us better
These studies suggest that our voice connects us with others more effectively than text, perhaps because our voice better communicates our thoughts and feelings. Talking to people makes us feel more connected than texting people, and the interactions are not as awkward as we expect.
However, we often fail to notice that the tools we use to communicate influence our experiences of social connection. When we do compare the tools, we often overestimate the potential negative outcomes (awkward interactions) or underestimate the potential positive outcomes (connected feelings) of using voice-based tools, and subsequently choose to use the seemingly safer but less effective text-based tools.
So, the researchers suggest that to achieve a stronger social connection with our loved ones, call and talk rather than type and text. The researchers also suggest that technology developers design communication tools which encourage more talking between people and that policymakers make these tools more widely available.
This study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Kumar, A. & Epley, N. (2020). It’s surprisingly nice to hear you: Misunderstanding the impact of communication media can lead to suboptimal choices of how to connect with others. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000962
About the Author
Li Tong Low is a research assistant working on neuroscience and psychology projects. She is engaged in research translation and enjoys writing about scientific discoveries for the public.