This post is also available in Dutch.
Humans are a hyper-social species. But what makes a social interaction meaningful? This question is even more relevant now than ever before, with the rise of computer-mediated communication, and the current situation in the world due to Covid-19.
Sociality is regarded as one of the big strengths of our species. For thousands of years, human social interactions were defined by being in small groups and face-to-face. Thanks to technology, first telecommunications and later the Internet, we are no longer bound by place and time, nor to the number of people with whom we can engage. Computer-mediated communication has also proven to be useful in helping to maintain our social lives during the global pandemic. The question that researchers have been interested in the past and is especially relevant now is what makes a social interaction meaningful?
A newly published study set out to get a comprehensive view of the characteristics of social interactions that make them valuable, be they online or offline. The study was based on an online questionnaire and collected responses from over 4,000 respondents from 3 countries: India, Japan and the USA. The study was designed to elicit answers to an open-ended question, in which people had to describe their most recent (meaningful) interaction in their own words. That is, only for some but not all respondents was the word meaningful specified in the instructions.
Having described the interaction, respondents had to rate how meaningful it was and provide a reason why they thought it was meaningful or not. They were also asked to fill in a number of closed-ended items about interaction partners (e.g., loved ones, strangers), activity during the social interaction (e.g., conversing, helping others together, listening to music/podcast together), whether the interaction was planned in advance, whether it was captured through photo or video, and the communication medium (e.g., in person, social media, email, dating site) among other things.
So, what makes social interactions meaningful? It appears 3 things can provide value. One is people – that is, who is/are involved in the interaction. If it is one’s friends and family, the interaction is likely to be more meaningful compared to when it is with strangers. Another aspect is the activity involved (however, the study does not specify which precise activities are more meaningful than others). Yet neither people nor activity can make an interaction meaningful by themselves. The feature that is most likely to make an interaction worthy is impact.
But what does impact mean? A valuable social interaction, according to the study results, is one that produces a shift in people’s knowledge or emotions, or enhances the relationship. Indeed, in two thirds of meaningful interactions, people talked about their impact. For example, the interaction was valuable because it brought people closer or because it taught them something.
Finally, what about online vs. offline social interactions? Are we losing out if the interaction is computer-mediated because online compared to face-to-face communication arguably lacks richness? At least this study reported that people rated interactions as meaningful irrespective of whether they were online or offline. This means that communication medium might be less important than we tend to think. The results of this research make me feel quite positive. While for some time to come I will still not be able to go about my social interactions as usual, I know that what gives value to my social exchanges remains viable – having micro-impacts on each other’s lives.