Starbucks, taking note of what customers clearly want, recently opened its first pickup-only location in New York City, completely removing even the notion that humans are meant to interact. That innovation comes on the heels of Uber's Quiet Mode rollout earlier this year, a feature that lets drivers know passengers are opting for the sound of silence. And 'quiet chairs' at various hair salons have allowed for getting a new 'do without a side of dish.
On the one hand, limiting low-stakes interactions can make life easier, faster, and more efficient. But it's hard to ignore the potential link between Americans being lonelier than ever (especially millennials) to epidemic proportions and our simultaneous desire to minimize our interactions with one another.
Maybe the two situations aren't related, and talking to strangers is an annoying fact of life that'll become extinct? in the not-so-distant future. That way, we can persist moving about, headphones on, faces turned down to phones, completing transactions with the scan of a smartwatch, without ever needing to communicate verbally unless really, really wanting to. But maybe these exchanges—with baristas, airline seat-mates, the yogi on the next mat in class—actually do serve some sort of purpose.
Face-to-face human connection: What is it good for?
Whether with strangers or people we know, psychologist and How To Be Yourself author Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, says social connection is important for all humans. "We are social creatures, and loneliness is a symptom of something being wrong," she says. "When you're hungry, that's your body telling you that you need to eat. When you're tired, your body is telling you that you need sleep. And when you're lonely, that's actually your body telling you that you need to connect."
"When you're hungry, that's your body telling you to eat. When you're tired, your body is telling you to sleep. When you're lonely, that's your body telling you to connect." —psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
And apparently, connecting via text or social media doesn't satiate that need—or, at the very least, it depletes a different need. In 2018, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a small study of 143 students and found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day during a three-week window resulted in significant reductions of loneliness and depression. Another study from 2014 found that people who interact face-to-face with others they don't know well—relationships referred to as weak ties—felt happier overall than those who don't. Not to mention, finding a sense of community is one of the nine pillars of the Blue Zones lifestyle, which are habits employed by the regions of the world where people live the longest and most well.
"When we text with people, we may think, 'I connected with 10 people today, great,' but there's something about seeing people face-to-face that helps us have authentic, human connection," says psychotherapist and 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do author Amy Morin, LCSW. Many have human connection built into their daily lives via sharing a home and workplace. But the numbers of people who do live alone and work remotely are both growing. For these demographics specifically, a spontaneous conversation with a person behind them in the grocery-store checkout line might be the only audible conversation they have all day.
Reasons for resistance
Ironically, it's when people aren't happy that they tend to isolate themselves most. One reason for this opt-out pattern of avoiding interactions might be due to feelings of depression. Here, Dr. Hendriksen makes an important distinction between severe depression and mild to moderate depression. "Severe depression can be debilitating, and even getting out of bed can be truly difficult, she says. "But with mild or moderate depression, sometimes it can help to go through the motions of doing the things you used to like to do, even if you don't feel like it yet."
Where do casual conversations fit into all this? If you're moderately depressed and dodging your friends' invites out, this brand of small talk might be the meat of the interactions you have until you garner the emotional strength to do more. And those "nothing" interactions could help you get to that point.
Lack of human connection is also making us more socially awkward. "I have several young clients who get really stressed out over the idea of making a phone call instead of texting," Dr. Hendriksen says. With texting, she says, you can plan out everything you want to say, but with talking verbally, you don't have that luxury. "This can cause social anxiety for some people, which, in turn, causes them to limit human interaction or phone calls," Dr. Hendriksen says. Random off-the-cuff convos with people you don't really know, then, actually work to keep communication skills sharp.
How to maximize human connection in a society that supports limiting it
Given the cultural drive to optimize and automate, all signs point to more companies following the lead of Starbucks and Uber with initiatives that help us use technology in ways that don't require actual talking. This means, unless you already have enough social interaction in your life—and hey, maybe you do—you'll have to proactively seek it out. One way Dr. Hendriksen suggests doing this is to find a means of connection regarding something you already care about, whether that means a religious organization, a social rights issue, or a hobby. Also, striking up conversations with people when you're running errands can transform an otherwise robotic task into a social touchstone, says Morin.
Plenty of people are creating space for more casual conversations, too. The Lions Barber Collective, for example, has turned barbershops into places where men feel comfortable getting real about their mental health. Or consider the rise in run clubs, which transforms something that's often a solo activity into a social meetup.
The takeaway here is not that tech streamlining mundane tasks need to come to a screeching halt. Rather, it's that science is clear that social interaction is a major part of well-being. Even if human connection isn't an issue for you, if someone at your HIIT class starts chatting you up, why not just humor them? It just might be the most meaningful part of their whole day.
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