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Grouped: How and Why We Communicate with Others

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People talk for a variety of reasons: Sharing information makes life easier, talking helps to grow social bonds with others, and choosing what we talk about allows us to manage how others perceive us. Paul Adams, product team member at Facebook former social researcher at Google, talks about why we talk, what we talk about, and who we talk to.
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Why we talk

We talk to survive

The desire to communicate is hard-wired into all of us. It was an effective survival mechanism for our ancestors, who shared information about food supplies, dangerous animals, and weather patterns, and it continues to help us understand our world, including what behavior is appropriate and how to act in certain situations. People talk because sharing information makes life easier.

Our motivations for sharing online are the same as the motivations of our ancestors. We often update our status because we need information. Research has shown that the majority of tweets that mention brands are seeking information rather than expressing sentiment, and one in five tweets is about a product or service.1

We talk to form social bonds

Decades of research in social psychology has shown that people talk to form and grow social bonds. Conversations ensure that we understand one another. One key aspect of this is communal laughter. Research has shown that if people laugh together with strangers, they are as generous to them as they are to their friends.2

Talking to someone sends out strong social signals. It shows people that we consider them important enough to spend time together. This is also true online. People update their status to produce a feeling of connectedness, even when people are geographically distant.3 Status updates often contain social gestures and people often respond by liking or commenting on the content, not because they actually like the content but because they want to send out a social signal to build the relationship. In many cases, the conversation that follows a status update is much more important than the status update itself. More than the act of sharing content, marketing campaigns need to support conversations.

Research has shown that social bonds are central to our happiness. The deeper the relationships someone has, the happier they will be.4 Women talk to form social bonds more often than men. Many of their conversations are aimed at building and maintaining their social network. Men more often talk about themselves or things they claim to be knowledgeable about, often because they are trying to impress the people around them.5

We talk to help others

When researchers have studied why people share, they have consistently found that many do it to help others. This is an altruistic act with no expected reciprocity. For many, it is important to them to be perceived as helpful, and so they try to share content that they think other people will find valuable.6 This is especially clear when we see people share information that may not reflect positively on themselves.

We talk to manage how others perceive us

While people talk to make their lives easier, to form social bonds, and to help others, most of our conversations are a form of reputation management.7 Research has shown that most conversations are recounting personal experiences, or gossiping about who is doing what with whom. Only 5 percent is criticism or negative gossip. The vast majority of these conversations are positive, as we are driven to preserve a positive reputation.8

Our identities are constantly shaped and refined by the conversations we have. Our values were passed on from conversations with our family, community, society, country, church, and through our profession, and are continually refined by the people we spend time with.

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