Doing this very old-fashioned practice could help your relationships

The phone call has fallen woefully out of favor over the past decade or so. It feels like no one picks up their phone anymore, usually out of fear of robocalls and telemarketers, or simply because there are so many other ways of staying in touch in 2020.

The telephone call’s fall from grace is a perfect example of just how much modern technology has changed day-to-day life at an unprecedented pace. Just a few years ago telephones were the primary way offices conducted business, friends stayed in touch, and families coordinated dinner plans. Now, most people consider phone calls awkward, unnecessary, and only useful as an absolute last communicational resort.

A new study from the University of Texas at Austin, however, has uncovered a compelling reason why we should all be making more phone calls – especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Researchers say that phone calls produce stronger social connections and bonds than text messages, consequently providing more of the social connectedness we could all use a bit more of these days.

Overwhelmingly, most study participants said they avoid phone calls because they consider them awkward. While it’s true that a few seconds of silence or instances of talking over one another tends to happen on the telephone, researchers say phone calls’ social connection benefits far outweigh the occasional awkward moment.

“People feel significantly more connected through voice-based media, but they have these fears about awkwardness that are pushing them towards text-based media,” comments study co-author Amit Kumar, a McCombs School of Business assistant professor of marketing, in a university release.

Multiple experiments were conducted for this research, including 200 participants.

One of those experiments asked participants what it would be like to reconnect and catch up with an old friend, via both a phone call and email. At that time, study subjects said that a phone call would be a better way to catch up, but most still said they would rather just send an email over awkwardness concerns.

Then, participants were randomly asked to truly reach out to an old friend. Half were told to write an email, while the other half had to make a phone call. Despite the group’s expectations, those who made a call said the conversation went much smoother than those who corresponded via email.

“When it came to actual experience, people reported they did form a significantly stronger bond with their old friend on the phone versus email, and they did not feel more awkward,” Kumar explains.

Another common excuse people use to avoid phone calls is that they take much longer than text messages. That certainly can be true, but this experiment didn’t back up that notion. It took about the same amount of time for participants to chat on the phone with their old friend as it did other subjects to respond to an email.

A second experiment involved participants connecting with strangers. This time, subjects were randomly assigned to do so via text, a video chat, or an audio call. Everyone was told to ask and answer a series of personal questions including: “Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?” & “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?”

When asked to predict how the conversations would go, participants didn’t think the method of communication (text, call, or video chat) would matter all that much. Most even said they would feel just as connected to this stranger with texts as by phone call. 

In reality, subjects reported feeling much more connected after speaking over the phone or video chat. Moreover, many participants said hearing the other person’s voice, even more so than seeing them visually on a video chat, helped them establish a rapport and connection with each other.

That last finding is of particular note because it suggests telephones are great for social connection because we get to hear the other person. So much is conveyed by speech beyond just words; inflection, tone, and the distinct sound of one’s voice help establish a social connection that just isn’t possible with nothing more than text messages.

Of course, this study feels extra relevant due to the coronavirus pandemic. No one is seeing their friends and family in person as often as they would like, which means it’s more important than ever to maintain those social connections in other ways.

“We’re being asked to maintain physical distance, but we still need these social ties for our well-being — even for our health,” Kumar concludes.

No one can guarantee that it won’t be momentarily awkward, but the next time you’re planning on texting a friend, at least consider making a phone call instead. You’ll probably end up feeling much better about the interaction once everything is said and done.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.