An expert weighs in on the future of friendship as the country begins to reopen

Jeffrey Hall, friendship and technology expert, joined Yahoo Life to explain how the coronavirus impacted the ways in which we use technology to foster friendships, and how those findings may affect the future of friendship as the country reopens. 

Video Transcript

JEFFREY HALL: No matter how advanced technology gets, it doesn't matter unless you use it in a way that actually promotes a nourishing and healthy relationship. My area of research really focuses on the intersection between online and offline communication. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, friendship was very much based on kind of a small network of friends that we maintained.

However, when we would go out and interact with people, we would interact with people from work, from school, and our communities. Face-to-face interactions were roughly two-thirds of all of our interactions prior to the pandemic. Most crucially, the pandemic changed the way people keep in touch with one another by taking all of those face to face interactions off the table for the majority of Americans.

And in addition, when ended up happening was people had to change the modalities in which they communicated with, meaning that they had to make phone calls. They had to use video chat. They had to use texting in order to keep in touch with people who prior to, they just saw on a daily basis. We saw the number of phone calls being made in 2020 in March double the highest week in 2019.

We saw the use of Zoom quadruple, and with all of the different ways of communicating through video chat increasing. When you're using video chat programs, you have to sustain an incredible amount of focus. You have to pay attention to a person's face and their eye contact. It feels like you don't have any breaks.

Zoom calls also had higher rates of loneliness than you would expect. So after people got off the Zoom call, they would still feel that nagging sense of loneliness. I think we really have to keep in mind about this is the way that we replace face-to-face conversations, which are relaxed, which are comfortable, which are casual, all of sudden replaced with communication which is highly intentional, really sort of grim and anxiety-producing, with modalities that cause us to feel more lonely, more disconnected. It is a very, very rough recipe for keeping ourselves healthy.

What's interesting now as the country begins to open up, the guidelines basically say, we need to continue with social distancing. However, there is a space for actually opening up our kind of bubble to a wider network of people. What we're looking at as this crisis unfolds is people reaffirming their friendship and saying who they're really, really close to by saying, these are the people who I'm willing to see face to face.

People are no longer going to congregate at concerts, or bars, or parties, or indoor places like clubs, or otherwise. What this means is friends are going to have to find new places to hang out. This really suggests kind of a difference in the way that friendship might unfold, where friendship becomes much more of a private one-on-one affair, something that you conduct with people who are very close to you in kind of safe spaces.

Even in the case in which people go back to their jobs, getting haircuts, and things like that, we're often probably not going to be talking to people face to face as long, or as frequently, or with as many people as we were in the past. So all of those kind of casual friends, these are people who you're not going to likely see, and chances are you won't make extra effort to keep in touch with. When we use technology intentionally and in a way that closer approximates our face-to-face communication, we tend to be able to sustain and nourish relationships for longer periods of time.

Before the pandemic and otherwise, there were lots of conversations of how can we be reminded or nudged to keep in touch with the people that matter. If we want to use technology to the full capacity, we actually have to make a choice to routinely and intentionally call and keep in touch with people. People will actually find that talking on the phone to a friend is actually really nice. And once a routine is in place, it tends to continue to persevere, even in other conditions.

I really believe that whether or not we feel compelled or motivated to keep in touch with people using different modalities really depends on the access we have to important people in our daily lives. What I mean by access is I mean face-to-face, comfortable, and routine access. When that comes back, it's going to be a big question whether any of the routines we establish will maintain. But I recommend that they do. Keeping in touch with friends is a critically important thing for your own health and happiness.

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