The Potential Benefits of Solitude

The idea that humans have a fundamental need for connection and relationship comes with a caveat. While it is true that we need interpersonal engagement, it is also true that we have a need for privacy and solitude (Buchholz, 1999; Larson, 1997; Long & Averill, 2003). Moreover, some people are more comfortable in time spent alone than are others (Burger, 1995). And within each one of us, the salience, or strength, of the need for connection will vary over time (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Schutz, 1958) - certainly you can think of instances in your life where you really needed to talk to someone, and others where you just needed some time alone.

We should be aware, then, that there is more to this story than just the human desire for belonging and relationship. There are motivational forces that work in the opposite direction, and it is useful to think in terms of there being a tension, or shifting balance, between the two (see Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). Although the possibility of ultimate conversational connection may exist, very often, and most typically, as we know from Chapter 7, casual conversation works just fine.

And on this issue of connection versus solitude, there is yet another layer to be unpacked. Some years ago (back “when I wore a younger man’s clothes”),

I travelled to San Francisco with my bicycle. There I dipped my rear wheel in the Pacific Ocean, rode across the Golden Gate Bridge, and continued on until I reached the coast of Maine where I dipped my front wheel in the Atlantic Ocean. During that 7-week, 3,800-mile trip, I spent days on roads where 5 hours of riding seemed to bring the mountain in the distance no closer. Conditions of solitude afford opportunities for reflection, contemplation, and self-discovery. And, as Valerie Manusov (2020b) has persuasively argued, for these reasons, time alone may better equip us for engaging and connecting with others.

Communication Skill and Human Connection in an Evolving Technological Context

The yearning for relationship, belonging, and connection has been a part of our species’ makeup since our ancestors huddled around ancient campfires. And although you and I are imbued with that same drive, the introduction of modern technologies has dramatically changed the dynamics of managing interpersonal relationships (see Kelly & Keaten, 2015). Unlike previous generations for whom connection involved face-to-face interaction (accompanied by occasional letters, and, later, telephone calls), you live in a world where relationships are established and maintained via a variety of media - texts, Snapchat, Facebook, Zoom, Twitter ... you name it. In fact, one leading theory holds that a mark of a strong relationship is the use of multiple communication media (Haythornthwaite, 2002). And if you think about it, that makes sense: People who aren’t strongly connected (say, company employees at different office sites) may rely on email as their only means of contact; passionate lovers are unlikely to settle for that.

Everyone recognizes, even relies on, the fact that mediated communication affords limited access to the full panoply of cues available in face-to-face interactions. As I noted in the Introduction, interpersonal distance (measured in inches between your nose and mine), along with the experience of someone “standing too close,” doesn’t translate to the universe of Zoom. Ditto for eye contact - looking directly into your computer camera is not the same as looking into the eyes of someone who is physically present. Same for the faint scent of lipstick and the delightful tactile sensation and bodily warmth you can only experience by meeting those lips with your own. But the limitations of mediated interaction extend much further. When a student sits in my office, I can look where I want to look (not where someone has their camera pointed), and do so far faster than any camera could pan. In two or three seconds, I can scan everything from the condition of their shoes to the condition of their fingernails.

The very fact that mediated communication imposes limits on cue availability may, in some cases, lead to information exchange via computer-mediated channels that is even more personally revealing than information exchanged face-to-face - a phenomenon that Joe Walther (e.g., 1996) termed “hyperpersonal communication.” Walther observed that in the absence of nonverbal cues, (typed) language can be called into service to communicate relational and emotional information. So, by terms of address (i.e., what people call each other), requests versus commands, formality, the length of a message, explicit statements (e.g., “I love you”), and so on, people can convey information about their feelings and the nature of their relationship by use of the keyboard. Beyond this, the lack of visual and aural cues, along with the potentially asynchronous nature of computer-mediated message exchanges, provide an opportunity for selective self-presentation, planning, and editing: People can manage their online identities in ways that they can’t when meeting face-to-face. A nice illustration of the point comes from a study of chatroom users (Henderson & Gilding, 2004) where one participant stated that, online, “I can be the funny, entertaining person, not the geek with a funny haircut” (p. 495).

Research makes clear that people use computer-mediated communication in their quest for belonging and connection. And this may be particularly true for individuals who have social-skill deficits, are prone to communication anxiety, and so on. One study (Caplan, 2007), for example, found a very strong relationship between a measure of people’s tendency toward social anxiety and their preference for online, versus face-to-face, interactions. In reviewing the research on this topic, Kelly and Keaton (2015) conclude, “Studies indicate that those with communication anxiety and avoidance problems express a preference for mediated channels, particularly channels with the fewest cues, and they feel more comfortable and less shy when using these channels compared to [face-to- face]” (p. 618, emphasis added).

Although mediated communication platforms afford opportunities for interpersonal relationship and connection, their use may also come with a cost. A very close friend and I ate lunch together every weekday for almost 40 years. In that time our conversations covered the usual “small talk” topics - sports, kids, weather - but we also talked each other through difficult, sometimes gut-wrenching, times of illness, marriages on the ropes, and the deaths of loved ones. But, when smartphones arrived, the dynamic of our mealtime talk changed; I often found myself talking to the top of his head when random text messages became more compelling than whatever we were talking about.

A particularly telling research finding about the potential downside of reliance on mediated communication channels comes from a large-scale metaanalysis of American college students during the period of 1979 to 2009 (Konrath, O’Brien, & Hsing, 2011). During that 30-year span there was a significant decline in key aspects of interpersonal empathy, including feelings of concern and the ability to take the perspective of others. Moreover, this decline in empathy among college students was most pronounced in the last decade for which data were available (i.e., 2000—2009). The authors conclude that, “one likely contributor to declining empathy is the rising prominence of personal technology and media use in everyday life ... perhaps it is easier to establish friends and relationships online, but these skills might not translate into smooth social relations in real life” (p. 188).

We can see a concrete example of the impact of media-time on interpersonal skills in the case of processing facial expressions of emotion. From Chapters 2 and 3 we know that the ability to “pick up” and accurately interpret nonverbal

Box 11.2

"Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation."

high school senior2

cues is a key element of communication skill. In fact, the authors of one review of research on the topic (Niedenthal & Brauer, 2012) concluded that “The ability to process facial expression of emotion accurately is thus a social necessity ... emotion processing is a requirement of successful social lining'’ (pp. 275-276, emphasis added). But of course, even if processing facial expressions of emotion is a “social necessity,” it is an ability not shared by everyone (see Burgoon & Bacue, 2003; Guerrero & Ramos-Salazar, 2015). What is particularly remarkable, though, is that accuracy in facial-cue processing can be improved by simply putting away the phone and turning off the computer - as was demonstrated in a study of pre-teens at a summer camp where just five days with no screen-time resulted in a significant increase in accuracy in identifying facial expressions of emotion (Uhls, et al., 2014).

More generally, well-known author Sherry Turkle (e.g., 2015) argues that face-to-face conversation affords opportunities for deep human connection, understanding, and discovery that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve via mediated communication. As she observes, “Every time you check your phone in company, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt” (p. 40). Her thesis is that dependence on communication technology stunts the development of conversational skills necessary for authentic human engagement (what earlier in this chapter we termed “interpersonal transcendence”). Putting aside the potential for ultimate experiences of symbolic connection and discovery, moving down the transcendence ray toward everyday interaction, a lack of conversational skills, she says, hampers people in their professional and personal lives, and she quotes an executive at a large pharmaceutical company who describes her strategy for making hiring decisions this way: “It’s very simple. I have a conversation with them” (p. 46).

It is important to sound a note of balance here by acknowledging potential skill-related benefits of mediated interpersonal communication. We’ve already seen that digital technologies may be beneficial for individuals who experience difficulties in face-to-face interactions. Beyond that, harkening back to Bandura’s “social learning theory” and the idea that people may enhance their skill-set by modeling the behavior of others (Bandura, 1977), in chatrooms, message boards, etc., people may find exemplars for emulation. Similarly, mediated exchanges may afford opportunities for “trying out” strategies for self-presentation and social influence in relatively safe ways - and for receiving feedback about those strategic “experiments.” More broadly, the very existence of multiple modes of communication suggest that what it means to be a competent communicator includes skills both in face- to-face contexts as well as in navigating and managing various combinations of media in effective and appropriate ways (see Bunz & Montez, 2015; Kelly & Keaten, 2015).

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