I’ve always found the telephone a stressful device. For as long as I have remembered I’ve generally found the idea of calling someone – particularly someone I don’t know – a bit daunting. I know I’m not alone in this.
On the other hand, for the most part, the written word – whether in the form of letters in my childhood – or email, text, social networks, blogging is a far less stressful way to initiate a conversation. Give me the option to order a pizza online or on the phone, and online will always win out. It’s less emotional effort.
But whilst it might be less effort to initiate the conversation, the written word might not have nearly the efficacy. Findings published back in 2012 by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed fascinating results. The experiments led by Leslie Seltzer set up three scenarios: daughters were put into a stressful situation (they were made to speak in public about a subject of which they’d had little notice); immediately afterwards they were able to communicate with their mothers. One group were able to talk face-to-face; another on the telephone; and the third by text message.
The results were fascinating. Whilst it might not be too much of a surprise that the text message version resulted in no decline in stress levels (measured through levels of cortisol in saliva), there was no discernable difference between the groups who spoke to one another – whether in person or on the line.
There is something about a familiar voice that demonstrably reduces stress.
It’s this kind of subconscious reaction that for me demonstrates two things: whilst we might be getting better at producing machines that can emulate human thinking outputs in very controlled circumstances, we aren’t even starting to scratch the surface of this human stuff. And secondly, that whilst digital technologies might be enabling better communication between people over distance and time, we have often stripped out the sub-conscious emotional context completely.
It might be easier to start a conversation in text, but it might be infinitely more complicated to achieve an outcome than if only we would pick up the blessed phone (or Skype, or Hangout…). Remember that next time you are about to hit “Send”.