It may be easier for us to pick up on how others are feeling by listening to their voice rather than by looking at their face.
We often consider face-to-face interactions to be the best kind of interaction we can have with another person. After all, we get to see their face, and we get to judge their body language for ourselves. For a long time, the only way we can interact with people from a long distance is by writing or by phone call. Technological advancements, however, have made it possible for us to interact with each other through video.
While this is an amazing and useful innovation, it might not be necessary in terms of understanding the emotions of the person we're talking to. It turns out that it may be easier to figure out what others are feeling by just listening—not listening and watching, but just listening.
Researchers conducted a series of five experiments with 1,770 participants. These participants had to determine what emotions another person was feeling. 266 of these participants, who did not know each other, were asked to talk about film and television in both a lit and unlit room. This phase of the experiments showed that people were better able to determine what another person was feeling if they were merely listening to the other person's voice.
Another experiment gathered 600 online participants. These participants watched videos of three women from the previous experiment. The findings of this particular experiment showed that the participants were best able to understand how the women were feeling when they listened to the sound-only recording.
This, of course, is surprising. Why are we more astute when we're only listening, and not when we're both listening and watching?
The answer is unexpectedly simple. We have the ability to control our facial expressions so as to not betray what we're really feeling. However, we're less able to control the emotion in our voices.
Also, when a voice is the only thing we have to focus on, we may be more accurate at determining or understanding emotional expressions. Otherwise, we'd have to pay attention not just to a person's voice but also to their facial expressions, tone, body language, and word choice. Cognitively, we may have a harder time taking in all this information at once.
However, this may not be universally true for all humans. After all, some of us are deaf or have difficulty hearing. Other studies have found that people who have hearing problems are more adept at reading facial expressions and body languages. Critics of this study also say that the setting of the experiments may not fully reflect actual experiences. Thus, they recommend taking the results with a grain of salt.
For those without hearing problems, however, these findings reiterate to us one thing—the importance of listening. Especially now, when schools, workplaces, and even social circles are becoming more and more global, listening has more of a crucial place in our interactions than ever.
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