Communication Within Friendships: What Does the Research Say?

Photo credit: Matilda Wormwood

By: Pariza Fazal

This blog has been reviewed by Alvina Lai and Omar Elfarseisy; edited, formatted and published by Nicholas Murray.

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Friendships and intimate relationships are vital to maintaining positive mental health and emotional well-being. Whether long-distance or in-person, friends have proven to be valuable pillars of support during traumatic times¹. These relationships provide us with support and reassurance, aiding us in coping with difficult situations²,³. Positive psychology endorses the human need for connectivity and belonging and argues that positive social interactions elevate our subjective wellbeing and provide greater life satisfaction. Spending time with friends or colleagues, and maintaining social relationships helps us develop positive emotions, which are a key component of happiness⁴.

Spending time with friends or colleagues, and maintaining social relationships helps us develop positive emotions, which are a key component of happiness.

Having worked at a crisis line during the pandemic, I have first-hand experience of the extent to which the pandemic has affected the mental health of Canadians and how communication can alleviate some of those feelings of distress. I have witnessed a sense of grief and loss caused by social distancing protocols and the inhibition of in-person gatherings, which can negatively impact our collective wellbeing. Many individuals, especially youth, are experiencing social isolation and loneliness because they lack the communication skills to help them maintain or develop their friendships during the transition from face-to-face to virtual communication. I personally experienced prolonged periods of melancholy, when I could not see or hug my friends in person.

Over the last year, I dedicated a great deal of time to looking at what happens when a face-to-face friendship becomes a virtual friendship as a result of pandemic restrictions. Extensive studies have been conducted about the communication disparities that occur when geographically close friendships become long-distance friendships, but the effect of the recent pandemic has not yet been studied to the same extent. My research extensively investigated communication strategies and relationship maintenance behaviours for friendships that have survived the initial lockdown and first waves of the pandemic.

Photo credit: Uriel Mont

What is the Importance of Communication Within Friendships?

There is a substantial lack of emotional health-related research that could be applied when dealing with the current pandemic. However, we can use the knowledge that we already have regarding friendships and mental well-being to solve many of the common pandemic problems today. The following communication tips and relational maintenance strategies can be applied to friendships, romantic relationships, as well as other familial relationships. Analogous to my research, positive psychology states that healthy communication comes in two forms: verbal and nonverbal⁴.

Verbal communication includes any type of spoken interaction between the individual and a friend. Verbal communication includes self-disclosure, which is operationalized as the willingness to share personal or sensitive information with others⁵. Healthy verbal communication has reciprocal responsiveness. Responsiveness gauges how engaged both partners are in the conversation⁶, and is defined as a quick and positive reaction to a friend. Research shows that when both parties are equally responsive, they are motivated to communicate with one another, and carry on the interaction⁷. A positive and healthy friendship should also have the motivation to communicate. This indicates the individual’s desire or will to communicate with their friend⁷. Additionally, positive verbal communication has a large breadth. Breadth is the variety of topics that are discussed amongst conversational partners⁸. In general, people in a close or strong friendship converse about a diverse range of topics⁹. In my case, during the pandemic, he verbal communication within my friendships was less affected, as I find that spoken communications are easier to maintain over virtual platforms.

Contrary to verbal communication, non-verbal communication is any form of communication that goes beyond an exchange of dialogue⁵. Much of the non-verbal communication used in face-to-face interactions might be difficult to see and interpret over virtual media. The first aspect of non-verbal communication is touching, which is defined as non-sexual physical contact between platonic relationships. This includes small taps on the shoulder, brushing of hands, or pats on the back. Literature suggests that platonic touches can be validating and offer individuals a sense of comfort especially while communicating¹⁰. The absence of physical touch was one aspect of communication that affected me the most, as hugging and touching were a vital part of my friendships. Positive communication can also be affected by interpersonal distance, which is the physical distance between friends and is an indicator of intimacy within close friendships⁵. Increased interpersonal distance affects self-disclosure and comfort levels within dyads¹¹. Eye contact between friends can either be brief or prolonged (gazing). These behaviours may indicate interest, attention, and positive intimacy within the dyad¹²,¹³. Close relationships can often read their friend’s state of mind from their body movements¹⁴. Body movements are gestures that replace words and include shrugging, eye-rolling and nodding. These gestures are important for communication, and often convey the emotion or motive behind words. Lastly, chemo-signals are another vital part of the positive exchange of emotions between friends. Chemo-signals are defined as the smell associated with a friend; for example, their perfume or lotion. Chemo-signals/smells help individuals feel closer to their friends¹⁵. We may associate specific scents with specific people, which might make us feel happy or contented.¹⁶

How Does One Maintain a Positive Friendship?

Asides from verbal and non-verbal communication, friendships during the pandemic thrived on relational maintenance behaviours. People in close friendships chose to engage in behaviours that sustained or improved their relationships. In some cases, pandemic restrictions forced friends to adapt their maintenance behaviours, including altering habitual activities to suit a new communication medium or implementing new strategies to keep the friendship flourishing. These included reaching out and checking in on friends, having deep meaningful conversations, and self-disclosing to maintain closeness within the relationship. Maintenance behaviours included acts of service such as exchanging gifts or food items and engaging in shared activities virtually. Another positive and unexpected maintenance behaviour was humour, which tends to deepen intimacy and add fun to the friendship. During the pandemic, many individuals, including my friends and I, felt that humour kept us together. We would make an extra effort to share humorous anecdotes via FaceTime and Zoom Calls, which served as a bonding activity.

Why Study Friendships?

By examining the effects of the pandemic on friendships and determining the best practices for maintaining and strengthening relationships, we can then disseminate and communicate good relationship advice to other individuals. This research could be the basis for healthy communication skills, talk strategies, positive relationship development, and maintenance behaviours. Importantly, these outcomes could help to sustain mental health in individuals, immediately or in the future. I hope these positive communication strategies are able to help you nurture a flourishing friendship with your friends!

It is a pleasure to be a part of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to me at parizafazal@gmail.com. If you haven’t already, please consider getting your Canadian Positive Psychology Association membership to join our wonderful community and check out our Student Zone! Plus, if you liked this blog or if it has helped you in any way, please take a moment to like, share, and comment!

References

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2. Lobburi, P. (2012). Maintaining long-distance friendships: Communication practices for seeking and providing social support across geographic divides. Journal of International Education Research, 8(2), 125–134. doi: 10.19030/jier.v8i2.6832

3. Kelpinski, L. F. (2019). We can go the distance: Communicating through conflicts in long-distance friendships. Retrieved September 2020, from https://dc.uwm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3211&context=etd

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8. Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Retrieved December, 2020: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1973-28661-000

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10. Hertenstein, M. J. (2011). The communicative functions of touch in adulthood. In M. Hertenstein & S. Weiss (Eds.), The handbook of touch: Neuroscience, behavioral, and health perspectives (pp. 299–327). New York: Springer. doi: 10.1080/09602011.2012.711659

11. Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. doi: 10.1093/sw/11.3.122

12. Kleinke, C. L. (1986). Gaze and eye contact: A research review. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 78–100. doi: 10.1037/0033–2909.100.1.78

13. Adams, R. B., & Nelson, A. J. (2016). Eye behavior and gaze. APA Handbook of Nonverbal Communication., 335–362. doi:10.1037/14669–013

14. Matsumoto, D., Hwang, H. C., & Frank, M. G. (2016). The body: Postures, gait, proxemics, and haptics. In D. Matsumoto, H. C. Hwang, & M. G. Frank (Eds.), APA handbook of nonverbal communication (pp. 387–400). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi: 10.1037/14669–015

15. De Groot, J. H., Smeets, M. A., Rowson, M. J., Bulsing, P. J., Blonk, C. G., Wilkinson, J. E., & Semin, G. R. (2015). A sniff of happiness. Psychological Science, 26(6), 684–700. doi:10.1177/0956797614566318

16. Pazzaglia, M. (2015). Body and odors: Not just molecules, after all. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 329–333. doi: 10.1177/0963721415575329

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