Online communication researcher Stacy Branham offers tips to more deeply connect with family and friends over the holidays

By: Megan Hanks Mastrola
Dec 5, 2016

Stacy Branham. (Photo by Marlayna Demond '11 for UMBC.)

The winter holiday season can offer important in-person opportunities to strengthen relationships and deepen communication with family and friends, says Stacy Branham, lecturer in information systems at UMBC. Branham’s new article in The Conversation describes how the ubiquitous technologies that impact nearly every aspect of contemporary life for many in the United States have in some ways made it more challenging to build and maintain relationships. “Americans are more digitally connected, yet less interpersonally connected, than ever,” she writes.

“We need more empathetic communicationthe slow, deep (inter)personal discourse that can nurture identity and build and strengthen relationships,” argues Branham, a computer scientist focused on human-computer interaction. Engaging in deep conversations with others can help people gain empathy, learn about other cultures, and experiencing what others have gone through, she says, explaining, “Empathy is not only the key to feeling connected—’I understand you’but also the foundation for changing our narratives about one another‘now I see we are not so different’.”

Unfortunately, Branham suggests, “contemporary communication platforms can make it harder to build empathy with conversational partners.” How does this work? “Our written interactions through technology are increasingly short, with less sophisticated language,” she says. “More and more, our thoughts are broadcast to everyone instead of intended for someone special.”

Branham also explores how social media can be a place for people to be validated or to impress others, rather than to connect deeply with others. “In many ways, our devices help us talk at instead of with one another,” she explains.

To counteract this, she suggests people find opportunities to connect directly with just one or a few other people at a time, whether online or in person.“When your communication is focused on or intended for another person, it can catalyze empathic connection because you have to imagine and capture the other person in your text,” Branham says.

Taking time to write down thoughts before or after face-to-face conversations is another way to have more empathetic interactions with others, she says, explaining, “Personal writing is a form of self-reflection and narrative crafting. Simply writing your thoughts out can change them.”

Read the full article “You should talk about politics this Thanksgiving – here’s why, and how,” in The Conversation. The article also appeared in Raw Story.

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