She sat across from me at a round-top table, her feet tapping the air, and her lips spread in a grin. What began as an excuse to escape the summer heat in an air-conditioned coffee shop had become a three-hour long conversation.
We’re close friends who spend a lot of time together, so I wouldn’t have expected us to have that much to say. But with our phones in our purses, we lost track of time as we shifted from small talk to stories about our past and hopes for the near future. When we ventured back into the heat, it was our conversation, not the lingering touch of the AC, that left me feeling refreshed.
As wonderful as it is to keep your phone at bay for a productive morning, technology is not all bad for friendships. A series of recent studies by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology found that social media and texting benefit us emotionally and psychologically. The catch is that, as we all know, in-person communication is still better.
One such study measured responses from women who received encouragement after undergoing a stressful experience, some through text, some face-to-face. Not surprisingly, the face-to-face interactions increased the women's moods much more than the text messages. There's nothing wrong with shooting off a sweet text message to a friend, of course, but it still doesn't beat curling up on the couch with her for a heart-to-heart.
Because we’re so used to communicating in shorthand, it’s important to spend time reminding ourselves of the nuances of conversation so that we can make those important real-life connections. That’s no reason to toss your smartphone, but it may be time to consider how our ability to communicate with others online doesn’t always translate to how we communicate in person, a phenomenon Psychology Today calls “digital disconnect.” Sure, we talk to people all the time. But are we doing it in the best possible way IRL? Here are a few quick and dirty tips to make sure your answer is yes.
Share Like a Storyteller
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a study found that women saw men who were better storytellers as more attractive (gents, take note). Storytelling is an intimate form of conversation that brings two (or more) people together. Sharing stories is an important part of how we view ourselves—as we recount these scenes, we form our life narrative—and it’s much more entertaining than small talk.
To become a Shakespearean-worthy storyteller, you have to let stories happen to you. This means leaving the house even when you’re tired or not up to socializing. Talk to strangers—clerks at the store, dog walkers in the park, shoppers in the grocery line. Once, a subway conversation with a bohemian man about traveling left me with a piece of life advice I’ll never forget: “It’s not about seeing, it’s about being.” You never know what stories will come from these little interactions—or what stories these new friends may share with you.
Speak Like a Writer
Communicating in the digital world is all about ironic timing and clipped phrases. Only 140 characters? No problem. Of course, no one is tracking your word count in a real-life conversation. A good writer is used to taking time to expand thoughts, which requires a solid understanding of a few conversational essentials—pacing, emotional connection, and articulation. These nuances are easier to practice face-to-face than online, and they make for the best conversations.
Pacing is knowing how to draw someone out so that you can move from small talk to real talk. You’ll probably have to start with how are you, but if you wait out the awkwardness and keep talking, asking them questions about themselves and showing interest, you’ll get somewhere eventually.
Then there’s the emotional connection. If the person you’re talking to says something that really resonates with you, let them know. Another way to establish emotional connection is to say the other person’s name. As a way to build a bridge with them, especially if you’ve just met, it’s a recognition of their identity and value.
Finally, there’s articulation, because even a great writer is nothing without some key turns of phrase. A good way to refine the sort of speech you use in conversation (and a great way to practice storytelling!) is to keep a journal. You may have some on-fire Instagram captions, but practicing quality speech in long form will make you the caption queen of day-to-day conversation.
Emote Like an Actress
After spending the day shooting off rapid-fire texts or networking on social media, we might not be in the right mindset to delve deeply into our emotions with someone else. But James W. Pennebaker, author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, says that repressing your feelings can be physically taxing, though the danger of concealing our feelings can be offset by sharing them with others in what he calls “confession.”
We lack the ability of touch, facial expressions, body language, and sound when we write (or tweet), so we’re able to express less than 10 percent of our emotional range, according to Psychology Today. But when we communicate in person, we have all these assets at our fingertips. In real life, when it's most important to express our emotions to others, we have so many more avenues of expression to go around. So take advantage of the tools at hand to make eye contact, give someone a twenty second hug to release trust hormones, talk with your hands, smile so you appear more intelligent, and raise and lower your voice to keep listeners engaged.
We’re constantly participating in communication on- and offline. If you find yourself spending more time communicating through social media and less time engaging in conversations, remember that IRL you have a unique opportunity to draw on a different set of strengths. So practice sharing stories, speaking well, and embracing emotion face-to-face to become a better communicator and foster the interpersonal connection we all crave.
Photo Credit: Sara Kiesling