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Use the ‘Communication Hierarchy’ to Keep Long-Distance Friendships (Aka, All Friendships Right Now) Strong

Emily Laurence

Emily LaurenceApril 11, 2020

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When I moved from New York City, the place I called home for 11 years, to a city 500 miles away, what I was most scared of was losing my friendships. It can be hard enough to keep a friendship going when both people live in the same place, what with factors like constantly conflicting schedules and the urge to cancel plans. I feared what would happen when I could no longer meet my friends for a midweek yoga class or Friday-night dinner. So when my moved forced us into long-distance friendships, I wondered whether we would just…grow apart?

In an effort to keep my friendships alive, I became a huge phone-date person. When my friends lived nearby, we never had long phone conversations; we stayed connected solely via text conversations and in-person meet-ups. But after a few months of getting settled into my new city, my evening hours were spent the same way they were when I was 13: lying on my stomach, cradling the phone by my ear with one hand and painting my nails or paging a magazine with the other. These phone dates—which I treat seriously, scheduling them as I would any other in-person meet-up—have been the most important factor in keeping my long-distance friendships strong.

Now it’s as if everyone is in long-distance friendships, even if they’re actually only separated by a couple of streets.

In the past few weeks as the coronavirus pandemic has played out, social distancing and self-quarantining has led virtually everyone (no pun intended) to follow suit, similarly scheduling phone dates—and Zoom dates, and FaceTime dates… Now it’s as if everyone is in long-distance friendships, even if they’re actually only separated by a couple of streets.

But, as I’ve already learned firsthand, maintaining friendships without the IRL connection can be tricky. For one thing, not all forms of communication create the same strength of a bond, and how frequently we engage in this communication in order to keep a relationship strong is also key to know. To iron out these details of best practices for maintaining long-distance friendships, I called (of course) leading communication psychologists to learn more.

The communication hierarchy for long-distance friendships

While my method of choice for communicating is voice calls, I realize some people are more into texting while others prefer video calls. And apparently, I recently learned, the medium through which you communicate in long-distance friendships does matter. There’s essentially a communication hierarchy for keeping a bond strong, says Kory Floyd, PhD, professor of communication at the University of Arizona and author of The Loneliness Cure

“When you text or email, that’s referred to as a verbal channel because it’s using words but is lacking things like tone of voice or facial features. Talking on the phone adds a vocal channel because you can hear inflection and tone. Talking over video adds a visual channel because now you’re able to see the person.” The more channels a given communication incorporates, the higher up on the hierarchy it is, and the stronger a bond it can create, he says.

“You want to be able to hear the emotion in someone’s voice, and seeing them visually can help you pick up on other pieces, too.” —clinical psychologist Carly Manly, PhD

Clinical psychologist Carly Manly, PhD agrees, adding that the more senses that are engaged, the stronger the impact. “You want to be able to hear the emotion in someone’s voice, and seeing them visually can help you pick up on other pieces, too,” she says.

How often do you need to connect with someone to keep the bond strong?

Dr. Floyd is quick to note that there isn’t a wealth of scientific studies to inform this answer, but he does offer that connection is an essential human need, and it needs to occur frequently and be meaningful. (Both needs can, but don’t have to be, met by the same people.) “The important thing to know is that no one needs no connection,” he says.

Regarding the component of frequency, Dr. Floyd says small, everyday interactions count, such as small talk with a neighbor or co-workers. Meaningful connection, on the other hand, refers to something deeper that gives way to a sense of bonding. While both are important, Dr. Floyd says different people need different amounts of each—just as some people feel best after nine hours of sleep whereas those blessed short sleepers only require six or less.

“Some friends can talk once a year and always pick up where they left off like nothing has changed. Other friendships require more regular communication.” —Kory Floyd, PhD, professor of communication

Similarly, the needs in a friendship vary, too, Dr. Floyd says. “Some friends can talk once a year and always pick up where they left off like nothing has changed. Other friendships require more regular communication.” It’s up to the two people in the relationship to figure out what their needs are.

What if a long-distance friendship doesn’t fulfill your needs?

Navigating a situation, though, of one person in a friendship needing more frequent communication than the other can be tricky. I told (okay, complained) to Dr. Manly that not all of my friends take our phone dates as seriously as I do. Some don’t schedule them the same way I do, so when I call them at the agreed upon time, they don’t answer. A couple others don’t seem to want to schedule them at all, leaving me to wonder if the friendship was one only for a specific moment of time and I should just give up and move on.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, where a friend isn’t putting in as much effort as you are, Dr. Manly says the first course of action is to simply ask them about it, because something you may not even be aware of could be at play. Of course, that’s not always going to be the outcome—there won’t always be a simple answer with a simple solution—and Dr. Manly concedes that sometimes, a friendship just doesn’t mean as much to someone as you want it to or thought it did. But even so, knowing this much can help you better understand where you’d be better served dedicating your energy and allocating your friendship time in a way that provides for reciprocation. Because, as Dr. Floyd says, we need quality and quantity in our interactions.

To that end, be extra mindful right now of how your friendships are fulfilling you. Because whether or not you’re new to the landscape of long-distance friendships, virtual connection is playing a part in keeping relationships—of all types—alive. Just know that with effort, you can absolutely maintain a strong bond without IRL meetups—and, hey, that physical absence may even make your eventual in-person reunion that much more special.

Here are more tips on keeping a long-distance friendship bond strong. And here’s how “bond bracelets” can help you feel physically connected to people who are far away.

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