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Sketchy Skype Calls Actually Do Hurt Your Emotional Connection

"If one wanted to go to less trouble in undermining the world's unity, one could start with a dodgy internet connection obstructing conversational flow"

(Courtesy of Flickr user MatthewBogart)

The fact that we can talk with someone on the other side of the world is pretty amazing. And companies like Apple know it: ads for video chats feature happy people gazing on the crisp, clear images of their loved ones. But if you google, for example, "iPhone 4 FaceTime," one of the most commonly searched terms is "iPhone 4 FaceTime not working." Whether you're connecting by telephone, Skype or Face Time, technical difficulties can be infuriating. But perhaps you can bond over the awfulness of the call? Nope, new research suggests that those technical glitches really do decrease the quality of your connection—not just technically but emotionally as well.

To test this, researchers set up a series of calls between two people. Participants were supposed to talk to the person on the other line about the holidays for five minutes. On some of these calls, a one second auditory delay was introduced. Megan Edwards at PLoS ONE explains:

Researchers found that those participants whose conversations were interrupted expressed significantly diminished feelings of unity and belonging. Awareness of technical problems had no apparent effect on perceived solidarity.  Even acquaintances stated that they felt a disconnect, though to a lesser degree, than participants who did not know each other. Despite participants expressing that they felt less unity and belongingness with their partner even when they had the opportunity to attribute it to technical problems, technology did not get a free pass on the delayed signal. Those with an interrupted connection also expressed less satisfaction with the technology. Points may have been lost for both relationships and telecommunications.

The researchers, who were funded by a grant from the Google Research Awards, point out that as more and more conversations are mediated by technology, these glitches aren't insubstantial. They make their point by referencing The Bible:
The idea that communication is a vehicle for social exchange is ancient in science and popular culture: In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, God ends a state of solidarity among people by introducing multiple languages: “And from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9, King James Version). Our research suggests that although such social disintegration can result from the drastic step of creating multiple languages, it can also be achieved by more subtle and less discernible means. If one wanted to go to less trouble in undermining the world's unity, one could start with a dodgy internet connection obstructing conversational flow.

More from Smithsonian.com:

How To Send Secret Messages With Skype
This Device Lets People Video Chat With Their Pets

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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