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Voice Communication Creates Stronger Bond Than Text, Study Shows

Talking on phone

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Key Takeaways

  • Talking by phone or over a computer creates a stronger social bond than communicating by text or email, a recent study suggests.
  • These social bonds and connections can aid well-being, especially right now when isolation levels are high.
  • If phone calls are not part of your everyday routine, one expert suggests making "appointments" with friends as motivation.

Compared to text messages or email, voice-based communication tends to create a stronger social bond, according to an advanced online publication of a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Researchers asked 103 participants, both male and female, to reconnect with an old friend over phone or email, and another group of 302 participants was directed to "chat" with a stranger over video, voice, or text-based communication.

They found that interactions including talking—both over the phone and with video—created stronger social bonds and minimized awkwardness compared to those done over email or text. Participants reported that they felt more connected to the person they spoke with, even with strangers.

Even imagining connecting with others showed a preference for voice-based communication. In a third part of the study, 101 participants were asked to think about reconnecting with five old friends and how they would like to communicate.

For the friends participants predicted they would feel most connected to, the majority of participants said they would prefer a phone call. For the conversations they worried might be more awkward, participants tended to choose email.

The Value of Voice

Exchanging text messages is an everyday part of life for many people at this point, and the researchers aren't suggesting people ditch that habit. But for truly connecting with people—rather than simply exchanging information—the value of voice is key, according to study co-author Amit Kumar, PhD, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

"People tend to undervalue the positive relational consequences of using voice relative to text alone, leading them to favor typing rather than talking. But that's a potentially unwise preference," explains Kumar. "The takeaway message here is: Type less, talk more."

Amit Kumar, PhD

People tend to undervalue the positive relational consequences of using voice relative to text alone, leading them to favor typing rather than talking. But that's a potentially unwise preference. The takeaway message here is: Type less, talk more.

— Amit Kumar, PhD

Although humor and concern can certainly come through via text, it still lacks the intonation and nuance of conversation, he adds. And surprisingly, adding video is not an additional boost. In the research, they found no significant bump in connection from being able to see one another. It was a good, old-fashioned phone call that worked best.

"A person's voice reveals qualities of warmth and other emotional experience that you can't get through text," Kumar states. "Being able to see another person did not make people feel any more connected than if they simply talked with them. A person's voice is really the signal that creates understanding and connection."

That doesn't apply only to social connections, he adds. Previous research has shown voice is preferred over text in many other situations. For example, one study found that job recruiters rated candidates as more competent and thoughtful when they heard the person's "elevator pitch" rather than read it—even when the pitch was exactly the same.

In another experiment, participants rated members of a political group as more thoughtful, sophisticated, and warm when they listened to their explanations rather than read them.

Amit Kumar, PhD

A person's voice reveals qualities of warmth and other emotional experience that you can't get through text.

— Amit Kumar, PhD

Isolation Antidote

The researchers acknowledged that the study findings could be particularly important right now, when COVID-19 is making people feel more isolated from each other. Early in the pandemic, there was significant concern about older people facing greater health risks due to loneliness—and while that remains an issue, it turns out that younger people are just as affected.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in August found that younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.

Although those groups are taking the biggest hit, anxiety and stress are widespread, the report finds. Of the over 5,000 adults surveyed, 40% reported struggling with mental health or substance use issues.

Having a strategy as simple as picking up the phone and making a call for social support is essential, but if it's not part of your usual routine, it may take some motivation to do it, according to Paul Nestadt, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"Right now, socializing may take more effort, ironically," he says. "We tend to have more time, but the more isolated you become, the harder it can be to reach out. That's why it's important to get in the habit, and do what works for you. Set appointments with your friends if that's what it takes."

What This Means For You

When it comes to using the phone for a good old-fashioned voice call, you might be out of practice. You might even feel awkward about the idea, but actually hearing from an old friend can provide a nice boost to your mental health. One small conversation is an easy way to help yourself and help out your friends, who all may be going through similar circumstances right now.

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