In the modern world, communication takes many forms, from old-fashioned face-to-face communication, to the telephone, to text only communication via text messages and the Internet. It is clear that these communication channels differ in the richness of the social cues they provide. When we interact face-to-face, we not only have the content of what people are saying to us, but also their tone of voice, their facial expression, and other nonverbal behavior. On the phone, the number of cues is reduced, and in text messages or online, we are left only with the content and no non-verbal cues.
So what does the presence or absence of these social cues mean for self-disclosure? Are we more likely to open up to others when we can express ourselves fully with voice and facial expression and receive that feedback from others? Or are we more likely to open up when these cues are limited, so that we can feel less self-conscious when we pour out our hearts? The answer may lie in whether or not those we’re opening up to are people we’re close to, or strangers we’ve met online.
Research examining interactions between people who have just met has shown that self-disclosure is often greater online than face-to-face. I discussed some of this research in a previous post. Generally, when we meet strangers online, as opposed to in person, we reveal more about ourselves in terms of both the depth of the disclosure and the breadth of the different topics we discuss1. Scholars believe that this difference is due to the reduced social cues available in these venues. People feel more anonymous, more in control, and more able to open up without feeling self-conscious.
However, research on self-disclosure in ongoing relationships has led to inconsistent results2,3,4,5. In part this is because the research typically asks people about all of their interactions, without distinguishing between different kinds of relationships6. The extent to which we open up in these different communication venues may depend in part on who we’re talking to - Acquaintances, friends, or romantic partners.
In order to test the importance of relationship context, Ruppel6 asked 64 undergraduate students involved in romantic relationships to keep track of every conversation they had with their partners for four days. For any conversation lasting at least five minutes, they completed a questionnaire assessing what happened during that interaction. For each conversation, the students recorded the communication venue, with the researchers being especially interested in whether the venue was in person, voice-based (telephone) or text-based (online or text messages). The students also answered questions about the breadth (number of different topics covered) and depth (revealing private or intimate information) of each conversation. Prior to the study, the students also completed a questionnaire assessing how close they felt to their partners, to get a general sense of the level of development of the relationship.
Overall, relationship closeness was not related to the percentage of conversations in voice vs. text based venues. That is, there was no tendency for closer couples to prefer different communication channels than less close couples. But how did the communication venue relate to the intimacy of conversations?
Face-to-face conversations tended to have greater breadth than phone or text-based conversations. That is, people talked about a wider range of topics face-to-face than when they communicated with technology. This was especially true for those who were involved in less close relationships with their partners. Face-to-face conversations also had more depth, with people revealing more intimate things in person, and this was especially true of people in closer relationships. The author of the study speculated that this may be because people in earlier stages of their romance sometimes feel more comfortable revealing things on the phone where the threat of rejection is reduced.
Overall, these findings suggest that unlike our interactions with strangers, when it comes to romantic partners, we reserve our most intimate disclosures for those times when we see each other in person. However, it’s not clear exactly why this happens. It may be because we purposely save these disclosures for the more intimate face-to-face environment, or because seeing your partner face-to-face inspires you to reveal more. In addition, the study’s author did not record and analyze the content of these conversations or record their length, both of which could help explain why face-to-face conversations were more intimate.
So, if you’re expecting to have a heart to heart with your honey, it’s probably going to be face-to-face, but when you meet strangers, you’ll be more likely to open up behind a screen.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
1 Jiang, L. C., Bazarova, N. N., & Hancock, J. T. (2013). From perception to behavior: Disclosure reciprocity and the intensification of intimacy in computer-mediated communication. Communication Research, 40, 125–143. doi: 10.1177/0093650211405313
2 Buote, V. M.,Wood, E., & Pratt, M. (2009). Exploring similarities and differences between online and offline friendships: The role of attachment style. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 560–567. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2008.12.022
3 Chan, D. K.-S., & Cheng, G. H.-L. (2004). A comparison of offline and online friendship qualities at different stages of relationship development. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 305–320. doi: 10.1177/0265407504042834
4 Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2006). Individual differences in perceptions of Internet communication. European Journal of Communication, 21, 213–226. doi: 10.1177/0267323105064046
5 Schiffrin, H., Edelman, A., Falkenstern, M., & Stewart, C. (2010). The associations among computer-mediated communication, relationships, and well-being. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 299–306. doi:10.1089/cyber.2009.0173
6 Ruppel, E. K. (2014). Use of communication technologies in romantic relationships: Self-disclosure and the role of relationship development. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1177/0265407514541075. Published online before print: http://spr.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/07/08/0265407514541075