Social media give us endless opportunities to communicate easily with a wide range of people. We can have conversations via text, email, Facebook, What’s App and any number of forums or platforms. Doing that is great for people who aren’t able to see each other face to face, or for any reason don’t want to or can’t speak face-to-face at that moment, or for people who are busy. We can be in touch with and get to know far more people than if we only had to rely on being able to talk to each person face-to-face. And we can support someone or receive support very easily and effectively.
But face-to-face conversation is also important. Humans are social creatures and part of getting to know someone and communicating properly and deeply with them involves being with them, so that we can see or gauge their reaction and properly interact. For most humans, sight is the primary sense, the one that gives us most information, but another crucial sense is touch. There’s so much extra intuition we can gain from actually being in the same space as someone else and it’s hard to know another person properly and accurately if we only communicate online: we’re only getting to know parts of them – which is also the case in any relationship as we never know everything, but in online friendships there’s usually a lot that’s left out. Face-to-face conversation is often important in work place or business dealings – otherwise why would people make exhausting journeys across the world just to sign a business deal? And face-to-face also seems more effective in getting what we want than an email request. Research shows there are many ways in which face-to-face interaction brings success and well-being. Despite the myriad possibilities offered by digital communication, we’re still mostly working in buildings with our colleagues, going to school or college, having parties in communal places, coming together physically even when we could be hooking up via Skype.
Face-to-face conversation is also difficult! It is a set of skills we learn. And, as with any skill, we learn by practising. If we don’t practise, we don’t learn how to do it; it always feels difficult and we may become more reluctant.
Face-to-face conversation feels somehow more active than an online one. You have to concentrate more; it’s somewhat more tiring. You can’t walk away or close your eyes or stop for a cup of coffee just when you feel like it. You have to focus on the other person, keep your brain alert so you have something to say when it’s your turn to speak. And listen hard, too, remember what the person is talking about, remember what they’ve told you before. You have to be conscious that you’re speaking the right amount – not too much but not too little. Keep enough eye contact – but not too much because that would be weird.
Perhaps you don’t notice those things. If so, that’s because you’ve got those skills well under your belt. Or maybe you haven’t – you just don’t think about it so much as I do. Perhaps you’re an extrovert and conversation is a bit more relaxing for you. Perhaps you’re insensitive and you frankly don’t care! (Let me know and I’ll remember not to hang out with you…)
So, conversation is something we need to practise because it’s a skill that will do us good, but what has it got to do with well-being? Here’s what:
- You’re building a bond with someone – yes, you can do that online but you can do it much more strongly face-to-face. That bond could be really important one day in ways you can’t predict now.
- It’s an act of commitment to another person – it’s rather like praising and thanking them: “You’re important enough to me that I’m spending this time with you.”
- You have no idea what unexpected benefit might come from it. While you’re having coffee with them, an idea might spark, you might spot something, something exciting might happen. get out there and be ready for the unexpected!
- You have to focus on one thing/person for a short time, rather than multi-tasking on your phone or computer. So, you’re uni-tasking and that’s good.
Of course, conversations can go badly. Face-to-face might make you feel worse: there is that risk. But it’s a risk worth taking for the sake of the benefits.
Important tip: agree to have phones out of sight and switched to off/silent. There’s evidence – here and here, for example – that the presence of a phone changes the nature of the conversation and makes it shallower. People don’t want to get deep and meaningful when a phone might be about to ping! If you’re interested, do read Sherry Turkle’s excellent Reclaiming Conversation.
The Teenage Guide to Friends has lots of tips about making conversation, which you might value especially if you’re shy or socially anxious. But very many people do find it difficult and sometimes anxiety-raising. In a way, that makes it even more worth doing: if it’s difficult and you manage it, you’ll feel good about yourself. Well done!