Why study day-to-day social interactions?
Upon formulating the need to belong theory, Baumeister and Leary (1995) proposed that “human beings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships”, which materialises in everyday social interactions, geared towards satisfying this basic need.
To study these everyday social interactions, we designed an intensive longitudinal study that enables analysis of different phenomena in people’s everyday life. The participants were young adults, aged 18 to 25 years, from all over Spain. During a 4-week period they responded to a total of 21,158 short questionnaires (on average 83 per person). In each questionnaire, they indicated where they were and what they were doing, and they answered five questions referring to how they felt. From the total of short questionnaires, on 12,421 occasions the participants had interacted in the 10 minutes prior to the questionnaire (58% of the questionnaires answered), in which case they answered five additional questions about some aspects of their most recent social interaction.
1. We interact mainly to maintain our relationships
Following a typology commonly used in psychology, in this study we classify social interactions into 12 types, designed according to the purpose of the interaction: passing time, requesting information, or showing affection, among others. These can be classified, in turn, into four main groups in line with the function of each interaction: maintaining a relationship, pursuing a practical purpose, strengthening a relationship, and tackling difficulties in a relationship.
Social interactions that seek to maintain interpersonal relationships – face to face or via technology – are the most frequent (54% of the total). Prominent among them are passing time and staying updated (the two add up to 37%); the other two interactions with this purpose are gossiping and joking. Conversations for pursuing a practical purpose are the second most frequent group (34%): interactions for reasons of work or study, making plans, hallway talk and requesting information.
Interactions for strengthening relationships (showing affection and significant conversations) make up the third group (9%), considerably less frequent, but with a key role in interpersonal relationships. Finally, conflict and complaining or venting are the two interactions with which difficulties in a relationship are managed; they are the least frequent (3%) and especially mark relationships between people, in this case of a more negative nature.
2. In first position: face-to-face interactions
In the analysis of social interactions, the medium through which these occur has special importance. A little over two thirds of the interactions were face to face: 8,289 interactions out of a total of 12,421, while only 3% occurred on social media.
Among the mediated interactions, the most frequent medium (19% of the total) were texting apps (WhatsApp, iMessage, etc.), which accounted for 2,418 interactions. Some 11% of interactions took place through call or videocall, with the number of interactions through both channels being very similar (733 by call and 612 by videocall).
The least frequent interactions are those that are conducted via social media: they represent only 3% of the total. Although social media are the channel least used by the young adults surveyed, this does not mean that they are not a “social place”. In fact, social media enable relationships to be made present in different ways, which helps to maintain them and is a natural result of the basic need to belong. Furthermore, it may be that the use of social media is not interpreted as a direct interaction due to their asynchrony and, of course, it is quite possible that their use leads to other interactions through other media.
3. Four out of every five interactions are with friends or family members
The person with whom each interaction is established is not irrelevant, since interactions are marked by the degree of familiarity of the person with whom the respondent is interacting. In this study, we distinguish three groups of people based on their degree of familiarity: friends or family members (81%), acquaintances (16%) and strangers (3%).
The social interactions of young adults occur in their immense majority with friends or family members, especially those interactions whose purpose is to strengthen relationships (94%) and those in which difficult situations are managed (93%). Although the percentage is slightly lower, when the interaction is related to maintaining relationships, the interlocutor is also usually a friend or family member (87%).
Interactions with people with a lower degree of familiarity are mostly interactions that pursue a practical purpose (the percentage of interactions with friends or family members corresponding to this purpose falls to 67%). In effect, in this group there is an increase of more than double in the percentage of interactions occurring with acquaintances and strangers alike.
When analysing the interaction types in greater detail, it is significant that over 70% of them took place with friends or family members, except when interacting to request information (68%) and to work or study (31%). The degree of familiarity descends considerably in the work sphere, where participants in the study do not perceive interlocutors as being close to them: 7 out of every 10 work interactions occur with acquaintances or strangers.
4. Social interactions and the perception of closeness with other people
Human beings interact socially on a day-to-day basis, to strengthen their interpersonal relationships and to satisfy their basic need to belong. This leads them to feel more or less close to the person with whom they interact and to other people in general. In effect, level of closeness is commonly perceived as the most important result of interpersonal communication.
To assess the degree of closeness with other people, participants were asked: “what degree/level of closeness do you feel with other people right now?”. The scale used in this question ranged from 1 to 7. The graphs below show how level of closeness is associated with type of interaction and the channel through which people interact.
The social interaction most associated with feeling close to other people is showing affection, registering an average of 5 out of 7, much higher than the average level of closeness (4.53). In contrast, a level of closeness lower than 4 (the midway point on the scale) is only found in the two “negative” interactions (for managing difficulties): conflict (3.1), and when complaining or venting (3.8). In fact, except for these two negative interactions, all the rest are associated with higher levels of closeness with other people than the average recorded when not interacting (3.6).
In addition, interactions in pursuit of a practical purpose are not associated with high levels of closeness; in fact, they lie below the average. In contrast, those interactions that seek to maintain relationships and strengthen them are associated with feeling closer to others and are above the average.
On average, the level of closeness with other people is perceived as greater if a prior social interaction has been recorded than if it was scored after moments in which there was no interaction, independently of the channel in which the interaction was conducted. On observing the variation according to the interaction channel, we see that face-to-face interactions are associated with the greatest level of closeness (4.75) and interactions by texting with the lowest level (3.88). Interactions conducted by videocall (4.36), call (4.28) or social media (4.27) are associated with closeness levels similar to each other.
5. Interacting with other people requires attention to be paid
Social interactions require the attention of the people who are interacting, which means they need effort and involve a certain expenditure of personal energy. To measure the effort required for each interaction, participants were asked: “to what extent did your most recent social interaction occupy your attention or require energy or effort?”. In the graphs below, the effort required is associated with the type of interaction and the channel through which the interaction took place.
We have seen that, despite the effort required by interactions, only some really satisfy the need to belong and are associated with greater levels of closeness to other people. Showing affection is the interaction that not only involves the highest levels of closeness, but that also is among those that involve least effort; therefore, it is the best interaction when evaluating the ratio between closeness and effort required by the interaction.
The two negative interactions represent a much higher effort than the average as they involve a greater expenditure of personal energy. If we take into account that they are associated with lower levels of closeness to other people, these interactions have the lowest ratio: they represent lower levels of closeness and a greater effort required.
Interactions pursuing a practical purpose fall into the average of effort required, although interacting for work or study reasons requires a higher effort than the average of interactions. Finally, conversations to maintain relationships and strengthen them require, in general, less effort than average; among the interactions in these two categories, more effort than average is only necessary for gossiping and significant conversations.
Face-to-face interactions, which represent 67% of the total, require practically the average of effort required when interacting; this is not the case for mediated interactions, where the effort required varies. On the one hand, interactions through text messaging require less effort than the average, and interactions through social media are at the average. Effectively, these types of interactions do not require people’s full attention, among other reasons because of their asynchrony.
Calls and video calls, synchronous mediated interactions, require considerably greater effort than the average.
This difference in the effort required can explain to a certain extent why over two thirds of the social interactions recorded were face to face: when interacting, people not only seek to satisfy their need to belong but also to minimise the effort required for interactions. Ultimately, this difference in effort required is important due to the current situation, where videocalls have increasing importance in the work and family sphere.
6. Using our mobile phone while interacting face to face is not without importance
When interacting face to face, it is normal that at certain moments people make use of their mobile phone, whether to search for information on whatever the conversation is about, to write a message, for self-entertainment, or for other purposes that may or not be beneficial to the quality of the interaction being conducted.
To measure mobile phone use during face-to-face interactions, the participants indicated whether they did not use their mobile phone at all, used it a little, or used it a lot when their most recent social interaction took place. To measure the quality of the social interactions, three questions in which each interaction was scored were added together. Then, we distinguished four categories according to this social interactions quality index: low, medium-low, medium-high and high.
The data reflect that, in general, young adults do not use their mobile phone when interacting face to face. On average, they do not use their mobile in 70% of face-to-face interactions, in 24% they use it a little and only in 6% do they use it a lot.
When associating mobile phone use with the quality of social interactions, the clearest tendency occurs in the percentage of face-to-face interactions in which the mobile phone is not used: in 67% of the lowest quality interactions, the mobile phone is not used, a percentage that grows progressively to 75% in those of higher quality. These data reflect that in interactions of higher quality, use of the mobile phone decreases. Following the same logic, using the mobile a little, from 28% to 19%, means progressing from interactions of lower to higher quality.
By contrast, the percentage of interactions in which the mobile is used a lot represents 5-6% of the total and does not vary according to the quality of the interactions. When explaining the effect of the use of the mobile phone while interacting face to face, it is important to take into account its ambivalence. On the one hand, the data indicate that there are more interactions of higher quality when the mobile phone is not used. On the other, the data also show that using it does not imply, automatically, a lower quality of face-to-face interaction, due to the fact that the mobile phone may also form part of the interaction and favour its positive development, as reflected in the stable 5% of interactions in which the mobile phone is used a lot, independently of the quality level of the interaction.
7. Conclusion: the importance of everyday social interactions
This study analysed over 12,000 social interactions of 257 young Spanish adults, during a four-week period, showing why and how they took place. There is a strong prevalence of face-to-face interactions over actions mediated by technology: two out of three interactions reported are in person. Moreover, it is also confirmed that the vast majority of interactions, practically four out of every five, are with friends or family members.
As regards the purpose recorded by the participants on describing interactions, those that seek to maintain interpersonal relationships are the ones that arise with the highest frequency and they represent over 50% of the total. Interacting to show affection is the purpose that is associated with the highest level of closeness and that, in turn, requires less effort. In contrast, the interactions that require more effort are those dedicated to managing difficulties.
Finally, it is confirmed that in a higher percentage of higher-quality face-to-face interactions, the mobile phone was not used at all, while the percentage in which the mobile phone was used little decreased considerably. Additionally, the data confirm that the percentage of interactions in which the mobile phone was used a lot remains constant at different quality levels of social interactions, which indicates, among other aspects, that the use of the mobile phone while interacting face to face can be both antisocial and prosocial.
BAUMEISTER, R. F., and LEARY, M. R. (1995): «The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation». Psychological Bulletin, 117(3).
HALL, J. A. (2018). «Energy, episode, and relationship: A test of communicate bond belong theory». Communication Quarterly, 66(4).
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