So much of our face-to-face communication isn’t, well, face to face anymore. It happens on social media. Or on Slack and by email. While many of these platforms make communicating infinitely more convenient, they come at a cost: It’s harder to really connect.
Truthfully, even the experts aren’t sure what the shift from in-person to digital is doing to our minds and bodies. And while there are unknowns, we want to take a good look at why face-to-face communication is so important and how to make it happen in a digital age.
Why is it Important to Have Face-to-Face Communication?
Read on for three reasons why face-to-face communication matters so much, according to science.
1. Connecting with others is a human need
Let’s start with the one thing everyone agrees on: Humans are social creatures, and we have a fundamental need to connect with others. This basic need for relatedness has been supported by over three decades of research in the field of self-determination theory.
The huge body of research shows that we all need to have genuine connections with other people in order to be motivated, happy, and physically healthy.
2. Some alarming health trends might be related to changes in how we connect
Mental health research shows some less-than-pleasant trends for generations who grew up with digital communication at the forefront. For example, depression is on the rise among teens and young adults, suggests research.
In addition, three out of ten millennials (who are now adults between ages 23 and 38) say they often or always feel lonely, a statistic that’s higher for the millenial generation than any others to date. Many experts point to the shift from face-to-face to digital communication as the likely culprit.
The idea is that something important might be lost when we text each other or comment on each other’s photos instead of expressing our care for each other in person. This theory got a huge boost in 2018 when a rigorous study showed that participants who limited their time on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 30 minutes per day reported being less lonely and less depressed than participants who used social media as usual and without limits.
Face-to-face interactions boost your mood and well-being
Here’s the great news: Even brief exchanges with strangers can help satisfy your social needs. It can be as simple as smiling and having a quick conversation with a barista, which was shown to provide upticks in positive feelings.
In a different study, people reported being happier on days when they had more interactions with acquaintances than usual. Both of these studies involved strictly face-to-face communication. And they both drew connections to the fundamental human need for interacting with others from self-determination theory.
What are the Three Major Parts of Face-to-Face Communication?
There’s a natural question that springs from this research: What is so special about face-to-face communication? Why does it satisfy our social needs better than a text message or Instagram story?
The short answer is that face-to-face communication is richer than other forms of communication in ways we don’t fully understand. You might have heard the famous figure that communication is 92 percent nonverbal. This statistic traces all the way back to a set of studies (here and here) conducted over 50 years ago by the UCLA social scientist Dr. Albert Mehrabian. In these studies, he found that:
- Facial expressions convey the bulk of one’s message (53%)
- Tone of voice plays another part (38%), and
- The actual words carry only a fraction of the meaning (7%)
These findings hint at the mystery and subtlety of human communication, but they really just scratch the surface. In fact, Dr. Mehrabian himself takes pains to note on his website that these studies are only relevant to a narrow set of circumstances — communicating likes and dislikes to a stranger.
In the meantime, other researchers have found that the importance of nonverbal communication changes drastically in different situations. One study found that nonverbal communication is no longer dominant if the purpose of the experiment is hidden from the participants. In the technology world, even the most advanced machine learning algorithms are not yet able to reliably connect facial expressions to emotions. If social scientists and artificial intelligence researchers can’t crack the code of nonverbal communication, what hope do we have?
The takeaway: Human communication is incredibly rich and complex — likely too complex to be captured by anything short of genuine face-to-face communication (no matter how skilled you are at finding the perfect GIF).
How Can We Add More Face-to-Face Communication to Our Daily Lives?
Luckily, we don’t have to understand how it works to be able to use the full breadth of human expression. We just need to make sure we give ourselves enough chances to use these mysterious and nourishing face-to-face communication skills. Here are some ways to do that.
In public: Keep your phone away
If you’re like us, pulling out your phone at the slightest hint of boredom has become an almost automatic reaction. We won’t suggest anything drastic like ditching your phone entirely. But you might consider setting yourself a rule to help you be more intentional about when to use your phone.
For example: If I need to wait two minutes or less, I’ll keep the phone away.
- Waiting for the elevator to go up two floors? Keep the phone away.
- Standing around at the DMV? That might actually be what smartphones were made for. Take out your phone and luxuriate in mobile entertainment.
- In line at the supermarket? It’s on the two-minute border, and it might be a great chance for a bit of people watching and spontaneous interactions.
The idea is to open yourself up to the healthy face-to-face interactions that have been shown to boost your happiness and well-being, instead of using your smartphone to shield yourself from the public world.
At work: Build face time into your routine
We are big believers in establishing routines to support your goals, and that holds true for promoting face-to-face interactions with your coworkers.
Whether it’s chatting over a morning cup of coffee or stopping by a friend’s desk after a big meeting, think about the times of day when you have positive interactions with your coworkers. Then, see if you can turn them into daily habits.
Science says that both you and your coworkers will be better for it.
Make in-person communication part of your routine by scheduling it every week. Panda Planner has dedicated space for you to commit to improving your relationships. Get 25% off today with code BLOG25
With friends and family: Commit to meeting in person
If someone is important to you (and geography allows it), meet up with them in person. Social media is amazingly convenient and fun, but the research suggests that there really is no substitute for spending quality time together when it comes to satisfying our fundamental social needs.
Go for a walk, go bowling, or just hang out and watch tv together. The important thing is that you do it in person.
To sum it all up…
We hope this information is helpful, and we also hope we don’t sound anti-tech. Trust us, we love social media as much as you do. We just want to remind you (and ourselves, quite honestly) that face-to-face communication is incredibly good for the body and mind.
We’ll be sure to keep a close watch on this research about the societal shift to digital communication. In the meantime, go forth and communicate (and maybe start in our comment section below).
Your turn: How do you prioritize face-to-face communication in a digital age? Tell us in the comments.
For easy ways to keep tech from ruining your focus, check out our guide on concentrating in a digital world.