Awkward Silences: Technical Delays Can Diminish Feelings of Unity and Belonging

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Smooth social interaction is fundamental to a sense of togetherness. We’ve all experienced disrupted conversations—some caused by human awkwardness and others by breakdowns in technology. The content of our interactions does influence our connection to each other, but the form and process of communication also play a role.  Technical delays that occur below our conscious detection can still make us feel like we don’t quite click with the person we are trying to communicate with. The authors of a recently published PLOS ONE article, funded by a Google Research Award, investigated how delays introduced into technologically mediated conversations affected participants’ sense of solidarity with each other, defined as unity, belongingness, and shared reality.

For this research, conducted at University of Groningen, The Netherlands, participants in three sets of experiments sat in cubicles with headsets connected to computers (conditions that many of us with desk jobs can relate to) and were asked to talk about holidays for five minutes with an assigned partner. Some conversations were uninterrupted. Others were manipulated by introducing a one-second auditory delay. Some pairs knew about the delay and others did not. Afterward, the conversationalists completed a questionnaire about their sense of unity, belonging, understanding, and agreement with their partners.

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Researchers found that those participants whose conversations were interrupted expressed significantly diminished feelings of unity and belonging. Awareness of technical problems had no apparent effect on perceived solidarity.  Even acquaintances stated that they felt a disconnect, though to a lesser degree, than participants who did not know each other. Despite participants expressing that they felt less unity and belongingness with their partner even when they had the opportunity to attribute it to technical problems, technology did not get a free pass on the delayed signal. Those with an interrupted connection also expressed less satisfaction with the technology. Points may have been lost for both relationships and telecommunications.

In a world where our interactions are increasingly mediated by computers and mobile phones with less than perfect signals, the authors suggest that this research provides insight into how our daily interactions may be affected. The method of communication we choose may influence our personal and business relationships, especially among strangers. The authors also posit that technology meant to improve long distance communication by imitating face-to-face interaction may not measure up to expectations if it is not executed without interruptions or delays. Perhaps this is something to consider during your next awkward phone call or video conference— though your awareness of technology as a possible barrier ultimately may not make a difference in how you perceive the person on the other end of the line.

Citation: Koudenburg N, Postmes T, Gordijn EH (2013) Conversational Flow Promotes Solidarity. PLoS ONE 8(11): e78363. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078363

Images: First image by Villemard is in the public domain. Second image is Supplemetary Figure 1 from the article.

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