We are social animals. We crave contact with others for support, wellbeing and entertainment. But as our lifestyles become ever more transient and reliant on digital tools, these simple interactions are under threat. Nothing compares to living in real communities and spending actual physical time with the people we love.
Why is human interaction so important?
For one thing, it is important for our mental health. Social contact helps us to cope with stress and major life changes like a divorce, redundancy and moving house. And knowing that we are valued by others is an important psychological factor in helping us to forget the negative aspects of our lives, and thinking more positively about our environment.
There is compelling evidence to suggest human contact is also vital for our physical health too. In a 2010 report in The Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez, sociology researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, cited evidence linking a low quantity or quality of social ties with a host of conditions, including the development and worsening of cardiovascular disease, repeat heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, high blood pressure, cancer and slowed wound healing.
Sometimes a hearing problem might lead to difficulty participating fully in conversations at work, home and in social situations. This might lead to withdrawing from situations which prove too challenging. But in these circumstances, to avoid episodes of isolation and depression, human interaction is even more important.
Why aren’t we interacting anymore?
In a recent interview with MED-EL, renowned Norwegian ENT specialist Professor Jablonski said that key to his relaxation is meeting new people and the interaction this brings: “I like to travel, see new people, and broaden my horizons. It’s about the interaction with the people you meet. I love it.”
Professor Jablonski echoes what many of us are thinking. But while most of us are still interacting, the majority of these interactions no longer take place in the flesh, rather online. We might have 2,000 followers on Instagram who regularly see and comment on the details of our private lives but we struggle to recall first meeting them.
We have 10 Whatsapp chats we regularly contribute to, but the time we take to type out our messages far outweighs the time we spend with these people. We think we are developing in-depth friendships and relationships, when actually the opposite is true.
How we work nowadays has also changed, leading to fewer professional human interactions than ever before. We once worked five days a week in an office surrounded by colleagues. It is now increasingly common to work at least some of the time from home, alone and isolated from colleagues. If we travel for work we are expected to work on the move, meeting our deadlines as we move through airports and timezones, leaving little time to interact with the changing world around us. While our productivity has no doubt increased, our professional isolation is undoubtedly growing.
Businesses, previously fans of the digital lifestyle, are slowly realising that it makes good sense to promote human interactions. The HotBlack Coffee cafe in Toronto refuses to offer Wi-Fi to its customers, for example. As its president, Jimson Bienenstock, explained, his aim is to get customers to talk with one another instead of being buried in their portable devices. “It’s about creating a social vibe,” he told the New York Times. “We’re a vehicle for human interaction; otherwise it’s just a commodity.”
Human Interactions and Relationships
Professor Greg Jablonski
We crave professional interaction
Professor Jablonski reflects on human interactions in his professional life: “As a physician I have the opportunity to interact with people. And then I would like the opportunity to reflect and communicate with people in the proper way. As a physician we like human beings. Well, we are supposed to like human beings!”
This is a sentiment not only shared by those in the medical profession. In any sector, work isn’t just about cashing a paycheque at the end of the month. It’s about meeting likeminded people, sharing ideas and working toward common goals. Being in the same room as a client or colleague, shaking hands with them or simply having a coffee with a new potential business partner gives you an accurate understanding of a situation without having to guess what is meant through digital correspondence. It offers us the chance to pick up on gestures, tone and nuance which are things that over email may be misinterpreted.
Human interaction remains a vital component of customer satisfaction, even in the ‘digital age’. According to the Accenture Strategy Report “Digital Disconnect in Customer Engagement”, eighty-three percent of consumers prefer dealing with human beings over digital channels to solve customer services issues and get advice.
All interactions build a happy family life
“My best private life investment so far has been buying a house in Italy”, said Professor Jablonski. ”It means I get to spend time with my family and grandchildren.”
How important are human interactions for a happy family life? “It’s about sharing things together and creating bonds and attachments so that children feel they belong in the family and have routines and traditions,” says Dr Amanda Gummer, author of Play: Fun Ways To Help Your Child Develop In The First Five Years. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be sat round a screen watching a film or engaging with a Wii or Minecraft. The danger is we demonise tech itself with a broad brush, when it is all about the activities.”
Is community the key?
Community feels like an old fashioned word these days. Our lives are increasingly transient and there is often an expectation for us to move to where the work is, often at short notice. The traditional community, in which neighbours have lived side by side for years and have built up friends and support networks close to home, is becoming a rarity.
Communities are helpful to join or create because they provide support to individuals who are impacted by the daily stress, struggles and chaos of modern life. Your neighbours might help look after your children but you might water their plants when they are on holiday. Neighbours might pull together if a member of your family undergoes an important medical procedure. But of course there is the fun and friendship factor: there is nothing better than spontaneously meeting a neighbour on your street and deciding to go for a quick coffee. You don’t have to plan it months in advance. It reminds you that the world is full of nice, friendly people. You just got lucky that you live next door to them.
Community doesn’t have to be where you live, it could be a professional community where you are guiding the next generation. Professor Jablonski sees his role as mentor within his professional community: “Some senior surgeons do not like to allow young students to develop and be better than them. If I reach a goal that my younger colleagues are going to be better than me, then I did a really great job!”
4 ways to improve the quality of your human interactions:
- Use technology to facilitate, not replace, human interactions: Whatsapp and Facetime are fantastic tools but a relationship based purely on electronic communications is one doomed to fail. Use technology to facilitate shared experiences as part of your family life.
- Prioritise human interaction in both your professional and private life. Make time regularly in your calendar for meetings but also for informal lunches and coffees. It is often at these relaxed and informal meet-ups where we learn the most.
- Interact with people who make you happy. Accept you will never get on with everyone, and prioritise interacting with those people who bring you joy.
- Live in a ready-made community, or build your own. Offer help and support to those who need it. You never know when you will need help in return. Abandon the calendar and be open to spontaneous interactions.