All Social Contact Is Not Created Equal

depression-laptop-computer-sad-desperateWould most people agree that social contact is rapidly increasing? I believe so. But most would also agree that our understanding of what social contact means has broadened to include all forms of electronic contact. In fact, most social contact is now electronic social contact. This evolution has worked well for many, and has perhaps unintentionally isolated those who have become overdependent on the ease of connecting with buttons and a keyboard vs one’s face and speech.

For sure, lots has been said and written about this phenomenon. Yet it’s interesting that public dialogue about this evolution in social behavior tends to focus on the moral dimension; namely, are we connecting deeply enough, and are we undermining community?

I’d like to suggest that there are two, even more important dimensions to the issue of how we connect socially. First, is whether our habits of social contact make us more or less civil. Here, I give a thumbs-up to actual personal contact, and a thumbs-down to electronic contact. It’s way too easy to flame someone online, and then drift away from any response, or accountability. I know people can do something similar in-person, but it is far less likely, and at least there is some accountability for hurling an insult in-person. Your face will be seen and remembered; your voice will ring in the air, lingering in your own ears.

Some might argue that the online solution to this problem is the sort of obsessive transparency advocated by “circlers” in Dave Eggers’ prophetic, genius novel, The Circle. But ultimately, I think few would desire total transparency, and the dissolution of privacy it implies. So, to the extent that social contact is increasingly electronic, a significant proportion of that contact will be discolored by uncivil communication. Naturally, this will lead many of us, especially youth, to conclude that this sort of uncivil normal human behavior. Less something to worry about, than to learn from. Along these lines, uncivil, online behavior will increasingly influence in-person behavior. Many already avoid in-person behavior because the accountablity factor makes such communication feel more constricting. Less exprressive. Less extreme. Less likely to command the nanoseconds of attention that make flamers feel validated – like their existence matters.

A second concern with the shift toward electronic social connection is a mental health issue. Specifically, in-person contact improves happiness and life satisfaction. A recent New York Times article: Hello, Stranger by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Horton reviews a study conducted by behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder. Epley and Schroeder note that most people who get on a subway train avoid eye contact with other passengers. We have, as a culture, come to believe it is much better to remain in our own private mental space when venturing into the public sphere. Avoiding eye contact is the first rule of that strategy.

Epley and Schroeder offered passengers a $5 Starbucks card if they would initiate conversation with the passenger next to them. Result: Those passengers who initiated communication reported having a more positive experience on the train ride. The lesson here is that casual social contact improves our mood. We may avoid contact as a means of ensuring safety, but overall health may be better improved by taking a risk to connect, than treating other strangers as potentially dangerous perpetrators. In a related study, people who made an effort to engage their barista in casual conversation as their drink was being prepared, left Starbucks feeling “more cheerful, and with a greater sense of belonging.”

I know it’s easy to write off these studies as trivial (or associated with going to Starbucks!), but I believe they point us toward the incremental, yet significant steps to a more civil, happy society. Our mental state is always made up of small, but concrete decisions. Those decisions that expand our social orbit, and expose us to the power of human signals,- ┬álike a smile – can have profound effects.

Does this also help us to understand how best to coach students toward more civil school communities? I believe so. I believe we should spend less time wringing our hands about an escalation in bullying, and more time explaining the steps for how to connect and be civil. Schools should stage all sorts of conflicts, and challenge students to resolve the impasse with words and a constructive social tone. This would be far more useful than another admonishment not to bully. Kids are way more interested in psychology than most adults realize. We are good at warning them, scolding them, and advising them. We need to get just as good at coaching them toward mutually desirable outcomes. A civil society, comprised of happy individuals seems like a logical place to start.

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