I’m one of the lucky ones. The onset of this pandemic has put a strain on the sanity of many people forced to isolate themselves from friends and family. If you live alone, or with roommates who you aren’t close with, you’ve likely had a harder time maintaining social connection compared to me, a husband and father. My in-laws, with whom my wife and I form a social pod, are a five-minute’s drive away. And across the bay, in San Francisco, live two of my best friends, with whom I’ve had a number of socially distanced “hangs.” Intimate communication is easy to come by. I’ve got 99 problems but feeling alone isn’t one.
More isolated people, though, are reverting to a practice that we thought we had heard the last of. “Verizon said it was now handling an average of 800 million wireless calls a day during the week, more than double the number made on Mother’s Day, historically one of the busiest call days of the year,” reported The New York Times back in April. “Verizon added that the length of voice calls was up 33 percent from an average day before the outbreak. AT&T said that the number of cellular calls had risen 35 percent and that Wi-Fi-based calls had nearly doubled from averages in normal times.” Given this uptick in COVID-era calls, wouldn’t you think people had gotten over the modern reluctance, amid the ubiquity of smartphones, to speak with one another?
Talking on the phone is much more satisfying than exchanging emails and text messages.
Apparently not. In a recent study, psychologists Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley found that people are surprised to realize that talking on the phone is much more satisfying than exchanging emails and text messages. “People have these fears about awkwardness, and that seems to be part of what’s pushing them toward text-based media,” Kumar said, even after months of social distancing.
The researchers predicted that the way people choose to communicate—by speaking or typing—would have to do at least a little with how they see the pros and cons of each option. You might view a text exchange with a relative as conversationally less onerous, for example. Kumar and Epley also predicted that people would consistently underrate how much they might benefit from talking on the phone.
“We tested this hypothesis by asking participants in a field experiment to reconnect with an old friend either over the phone or e-mail, and by asking laboratory participants to ‘chat’ with a stranger over video, voice, or text-based media,” the researchers wrote. “Results indicated that interactions including voice (phone, video chat, and voice chat) created stronger social bonds and no increase in awkwardness, compared with interactions including text (e-mail, text chat), but miscalibrated expectations about awkwardness or connection could lead to suboptimal preferences for text-based media.” The title of their paper echoes its conclusion: “It’s surprisingly nice to hear you: Misunderstanding the impact of communication media can lead to suboptimal choices of how to connect with others.”
Our hesitation to be close is based on an illusion that our spoken conversations won’t go as well as we hope. “It really seems like people are worried that it’s going to be awkward when you interact with another person using your voice, and those concerns seem to be overblown,” Kumar said. “We’re being asked to maintain physical distance,” he added, “but we still need these social ties for our well-being—even for our health.”
It’s the sort of surprising finding that has become something of a trope for Kumar’s co-author, Epley. Earlier this year, Epley and his colleague Xuan Zhao found that people tend to underestimate how much other people will appreciate their compliments, and so will often forego saying something nice. In their paper, the researchers approvingly quote Mark Twain: “My child, I could live on a good compliment two weeks with nothing more to eat.” Twain was on to something. “A person,” Zhao and Epley wrote, “who assumes that another person will be satisfied with a single compliment for two weeks may do less [relationship] maintenance, at least in the form of positive affirmations and compliments, than would be optimal for both their own and others’ wellbeing.”
Epley himself is a joy to speak to in person. On the heels of the release of his book, Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, Epley sat down with Nautilus editor Kevin Berger, who noted that Epley’s research “has given him the confidence to compose a recipe for seeing into other people more clearly.” Watch, below, as Epley explains the number one reason why we don’t understand one another.
Brian Gallagher is an associate editor at Nautilus. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.