Surprising a Friend With a Text or Note Could Make Their Day

New research shows that people often underestimate how much it means when they reach out to those in their social circle.

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People appreciate an unexpected text or email from a friend more than you might think.Getty Images

For many of us, pandemic social distancing has gradually morphed into a different (and less healthy) kind of “social distance” — one in which we have little or no contact with many people we once considered close friends. If you’re ready to reconnect but not quite sure how your text or phone call will be received, a new study has some good news for you: It’s probably going to make your friend happier than you might imagine.

The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology?(PDF) and discussed in an article from the American Psychological Association (APA) on July 11, found that people consistently underestimated how much others in their social circle might appreciate an unexpected phone call, text, or email just to say hello — and the more surprised the person was to hear from the friend, the more they valued it.

“People are fundamentally social beings and enjoy connecting with others,” lead author Peggy Liu, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, said in the APA article about the research paper. “There is much research showing that maintaining social connections is good for our mental and physical health. However, despite the importance and enjoyment of social connection, our research suggests that people significantly underestimate how much others will appreciate being reached out to.”

A Pandemic of Loneliness

More than one-third of Americans — about 36 percent — reported feeling “serious loneliness” during the pandemic, according to a Harvard report. Lack of social connection, or loneliness, not only negatively impacts quality of life but has also been linked with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, obesity, heart disease, and stroke, per the National Institute on Aging.

People Underestimate How Much a Call or Text Will Mean to a Friend Who Hasn’t Heard From Them Lately

In order to explore how accurate people are at estimating how much others might appreciate an attempt to connect with them, and what factors influence the level of gratitude, researchers conducted 13 different experiments involving a total of more than 5,900 participants.

In one experiment, researchers had half of the subjects recall the last time they reached out to a friend “just because” or “just to catch up” via email, text, or phone, after a prolonged period of not interacting with them. The subjects in the other half of the cohort were asked to recall a similar situation, but this time they were on the receiving end of the communication.

Participants were then asked to indicate on a 7-point scale (1 = not at all, 7 = to a great extent) how much either they or the person they connected with (depending upon the condition) appreciated, felt grateful, felt thankful, or felt pleased by the contact. The people who were the “initiators” thought that the gesture was significantly less appreciated than those who recalled being on the receiving end of the communication.

In other experiments, the setup was the same, but instead of recalling the communication, researchers had individuals send a note or a note and a small gift to a friend they’d fallen out of touch with. Again, across all experiments, those who initiated the communication significantly underestimated the how much the recipients would appreciate being reached out to by them.

The Element of Surprise Leads to More Gratitude

Researchers also measured different factors that might impact the level of appreciation, such as the closeness of the friendship or how regularly the two people typically communicated. They found one interesting variable that influenced how much the communication or small gift was appreciated: the element of surprise.

“We found that people receiving the communication placed greater focus than those initiating the communication on the surprise element, and this heightened focus on surprise was associated with higher appreciation,” said Dr. Liu. “We also found that people underestimated others’ appreciation to a greater extent when the communication was more surprising, as opposed to part of a regular communication pattern, or the social ties between the two participants were weak.”

Interestingly, one situation in which people don’t underestimate how much others appreciate being reached out to is when it occurs in an unsurprising context, she notes. “For example, if someone is expecting you to reach out to them, then you are pretty well calibrated to how much they will actually appreciate you reaching out to them.”

Wondering Whether You Should Send That Text? Remind Yourself How Much You Appreciate Hearing From a Friend

Many people — including Liu herself — have found themselves in a sort of “friend limbo” thanks to COVID-19. “I sometimes find myself pausing before reaching out to people from my pre-pandemic social circle for a variety of reasons. When that happens, I think about these research findings and remind myself that other people may also want to reach out to me and hesitate for the same reasons,” said Liu. “I then tell myself that I would appreciate it so much if they reached out to me and that there is no reason to think they would not similarly appreciate me reaching out to them.”

Liu hopes that these findings will encourage more people to reach out friends they have lost touch with: “There is so much research suggesting that maintaining our social connections with others is beneficial for mental and physical health. Our findings show that others are likely to appreciate these reconnections much more than people expect.”

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