Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Social Bonding Over Distance: Sociomental Activity Trumps Face-to-Face Interaction

During a time of concern over technologically-mediated interaction supplanting face-to-face interaction and how technologically-mediated interaction might negatively impact social connections, Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age by Mary Chayko, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Chair of Sociology at the College of St. Elizabeth, is heresy… and I like it! Having only mentioned her work in this post, I’ll now expound upon the following conclusions drawn from interviews with “low-tech” and “high-tech” participants:

(1) Sociomental bonding which I would describe as cognitive effort spent keeping individuals present in your mind, instead of face-to-face interaction, is the actual basis of social bond formation, and

(2) Concern about people “losing out” by incorporating more technologically-mediated communication methods into their lives, thereby reducing their degree of engagement in natural, face-to-face communication, is overdone.

Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age

First and foremost, Chayko asserts that connecting with people across time and distance is an ordinary human experience. People are naturally wired to form relationships through various methods aside from face-to-face interaction. Throughout our history, going through periods of not physically seeing important individuals in our lives on a daily basis is a usual practice. Somehow, we maintain a connection to these individuals during their absence.This is cognitive effort at work. Think about it. You can probably pick out a couple of people who you interact with via face-to-face communication with similar frequency but who you feel bonded with to different degrees. Alternatively, you can probably also pick out someone who you are more bonded to but see less frequently and someone who you don’t feel any particular bond with that you see very often (a co-worker perhaps?). So there is something else at work that determines the strength of the bond, and I’m sure you can come up with a variety of reasons (shared interests, etc) why you would be more cognitively driven to keep one person represented in your mental space more than another.

Chayko agrees that face-to-face interaction is the “bedrock” of many significant relationships. However, she points out that there are frequent occurrences of social bonding without face-to-face interactions ever taking place as well. To support this conclusion, she points out that people form bonds with people they have never met in person, even without advanced technology as a factor. Some examples she encountered include bonds with distant ancestors, with authors through reading their books, with celebrities and historical figures, and with an entire nation’s people. She maintains that these bonds are just as strong, just as emotionally charged, and just as genuine as bonds with important people interviewees interact with in the same physical space. “But these connections aren’t real!” you might protest, “You don’t actually come to really know these people.”

However, out of all the relationships that have resulted from “real life” face-to-face interactions, how many do you suppose represent cases in which people really objectively know others as they truly are? Even the closest relationships persist on the basis of some degree of idealization of the other. Aside from this, Chayko names problems that many of us intuitively know. Although the Internet has a reputation for being a place where people deceive each other, Chayko points out that much more deception (including unintentional deception) takes place in “real life” relationships than people are willing to acknowledge. I wish to add that it’s far more common for people to project and see what they want to see in others than to really see people for who they really are. I think this point is one that introverts can especially appreciate since we tend not to broadcast who we really are. Of the people who “know” you, how many actually see you for who you really are? How many see their personal traits and characteristics in you because they like you based on just a few superficial and sometimes imagined similarities? Finally, due to the sense of anonymity provided, the Internet is not only a place for deception but also a place where people display pure honesty and authenticity that they don’t display in person.

Image representing Skype as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Throughout humankind’s advancement of communication methods, people have expressed concern that new communication methods would displace face-to-face communication resulting in the loss of a fundamentally human part of ourselves. Chayko points out that this happened with the development of written communication, the invention of the telephone, and so on. “Oh no!” people exclaimed, “Now people will spend so much time writing to each other/talking on the phone with each other/using Skype instead of getting together and interacting with each other in-person, and we will lose out by not practicing our natural body language or facial expression reading skills!” Chayko’s view is that we are, instead, moving towards incorporating a portfolio of communication styles and that, in this portfolio, desire for face-to-face communication will persist as it has done so through every iteration of communication technology advancement. Chayko’s conceptualization of the mechanism behind social bonding is both provocative and compelling, and I believe that it’s time to entertain these ideas. What are you thoughts on this? I look forward to your comments!

11 responses to “Social Bonding Over Distance: Sociomental Activity Trumps Face-to-Face Interaction

  1. Lisa Duncan | Alternative Workstyle Enthusiast June 20, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Great points Lynn, especially as companies moved towards remote workforces.

  2. Mike July 4, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    Somebody should show this to the IRS and the GSA so that they don’t fell they need those big, fancy, expensive meetings in Las Vegas etc to bond with each other. 🙂

    • Lynn Patra July 4, 2013 at 11:22 pm

      Hi Mike! Ooooh yes, I quite like that idea! 😀

      Thanks for the comment and hope you’re having a fantastic 4th of July!

      • Mike July 4, 2013 at 11:26 pm

        The same to you. I hope you to are enjoying a great 4th. Here we had a neighborhood picnic with a kids parade, games, lots of brats and hotdogs, burgers, watermelon, potato salad and a lot of fun!

        • Lynn Patra July 4, 2013 at 11:29 pm

          Thank you Mike, and I will! The temperature here will be staying in the triple digits for awhile, but we will get to enjoy the sight of fireworks from our house atop a hill – always a fabulous experience!

  3. Regan July 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Interesting post Lynn. I like the idea that keeping people in mind in a positive way can have a bigger impact on your relationship than seeing them every day. I work with most of my colleagues in the same office and a few in an office in another city. I think my work relationship and productivity is at least as well with the quality people in the other city as it is with those who are in the same building.

    It seems to me that modern communication tools makes it easier for us to communicate with more people, more often, with less time, which enhances collaboration. Of course sometimes the complexity of the issue or the urgency of it requires a richer or more immediate form of communication like a phone call or an in person visit. But I find that is a lot more rare than what people often seem to make out.

    I think you’re though that many people will still want, and get a lot out of seeing people in person from time-to-time for no reason other than to see them in the flesh – maybe not in Vegas, but somewhere…

    • Lynn Patra July 14, 2013 at 12:12 am

      Hi Regan! Thanks for visiting and commenting!

      Yes, Dr. Chayko made an observation I’ve not heard often – that people have been alarmed that other inventions which have made it possible to communicate without being face-to-face (like written communication and the telephone) would lead us down the path to losing our sense of humanity before, but such inventions have not replaced face-to-face communication. Instead, they just become a part of our repertoire. I see the same thing happening with visual collaboration tools. They are nice to have and, like you said, allow you to meet and converse with people you’d otherwise not have access to. People are putting these tools to great use, but we still want to see the significant people in our lives for sure!

  4. Five Quick Minutes July 31, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    I am someone who has worked with close, person-to-person contact each day. But I have to say that some of these technologies which allow us instant communication with others do serve their purposes. More efficient use of time is of major concern to every employer.

    However, there is a difference between “communication” and “contact.” I still consider the face-to-face of great value in building closer personal networking. And the social contact adds depth to relationships which seems lacking in technological communication.

    There are pros and cons to both sides of this topic, and electronics will have a greater impact in the workplace as time goes on. However, I’d have to give an edge to the interpersonal enrichment which comes only by way of the old fashioned “personal touch!”

    Nice work here, Lynn! Your points are well presented…


    • Lynn Patra July 31, 2013 at 4:40 pm

      Good morning Christian (morning here where I am anyways)! Thank you for your thoughtful comment! Yes, I expect a lot of individual variation preferences when it comes to establishing relationships.

      I myself have enjoyed the friendships I’ve developed over the Internet – have one very good friend who I’ve never even seen on video-mediated communication technology whom I’ve been “pen pals” with for 6 years, and I feel closer to this person than most other people I actually see on a daily basis.

      One of the objectives of allowing people to work from anywhere and anytime however is to help people see their families more. I know some people who commute for almost 2 hours one way (nearly 4 hours daily) for their job and, figuring in the occasional overtime, it’s not unusual for people to not see home for up to 14 hours a day. The Industrial Revolution which brought people to work at a centralized location (factories and offices) changed our social habits so that people see their co-workers much more so than their own friends and family, but Information Age work practices (that we have yet to fully embrace) can swing this back in the other direction. I think most people will be able to cope with seeing their co-workers a bit less (that’s why I think this book makes a great case for being able to communicate and maintain relationships without daily face-to-face interaction) and their friends and family more! 😉

      Have to rush to work as I speak… -sigh-

      • Five Quick Minutes July 31, 2013 at 6:52 pm

        In this situation to which you are referring, I agree. People would rather spend more time with family in the confines of their home environment than at work with co-workers.

        It is an adjustment which will be more readily accepted by younger minds who have grown up in the tech-age. However, the value of having more home/friends/family time is appreciated by many age groups.

        Have a great day at work! Hurry back and write some more…good work, Lynn.


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