Psychology of Social Connection

The Online & In-Person Friendship Survival Guide

October 18th, 2020 · 6 Comments

As eager freshmen we ran around campus finding new friends, congregating in the dining hall, hanging out in tiny common rooms, avoiding proctors and hiding drinks – it was easy to meet people and form these friendships. But now, we click between class links and our friends are little boxes on Zoom, hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Despite being in a pandemic, those friendships still remain, and someday we’ll be face to face again. So, we’re going to tell you why friendships are important and how to maintain friendships both in ~real life~ as well as during COVID. Now, we’re going to tell you how to leverage the building blocks from Unit I to remind you of what’s important in forming friendships, as well as help you and those friendships survive Zoom U.

Imitation — James

A bunch of tiny boxes assorted on a screen doesn’t exactly foster the best environment in which to make friends, but welcome to Zoom U 2020. Although our current situation is certainly not ideal, there are still many ways in which we can form and maintain strong friendships.

Science suggests that proximity is a major factor in the formation of friendships (Nahemow, & Lawton 1975).  Proximity to others often leads to self-disclosure as a result of familiarity. Alas, our college experience has been ripped from us, and most of us are no longer in proximity to… well, basically anyone.  But, not to worry, the proximity of our faces on a screen may be just enough to get us through this.

The first tip in our Zoom U Survival Guide is to understand imitation and mimicry. When Jen says that imitation is a building block of social connection, she ain’t kidding!  Many studies have been done showing that mimicry leads to more pleasant interactions and the formation of social bonds (Stel & Vonk, 2010).  With the pandemic limiting our social interactions, it is more important than ever to make the most out of the limited facetime, no pun intended, that we have with each other.  Although it may seem silly, imitation can still occur over Zoom! Facial expressions are amplified on Zoom, so use this to your advantage! In order to create social bonds, maybe try to mimic facial expressions with break-out room members, just don’t be weird about it. It may seem uncomfortable or awkward but according to a bunch of smart people, it really does work.

It is important to remember that mimicry often occurs subconsciously.  If you’re like me you can remember many times where you have either mimicked another’s behavior or been mimicked in a natural way and this imitation led to conversation, and yes a ~social bond~.  So, stop worrying! Although it may seem as if we are completely isolated, humans tend to have a way of figuring out the whole friendship thing.  Zoom will not beat us. But, keep reading because there are many other building blocks of social connection that can assist us in forming friendships.

Mind Perception — Christi

Mind perception is super important to connection and communication in friendships. In Ledbetter, Griffin, and Sparks’ word-game study, interpersonal mindfulness and theory of mind were strong predictors of friendships (Ledbetter et al., 2007). While it may be more difficult to infer others’ thoughts and emotions through a screen, your friendships are not doomed on Zoom.

The challenge of perspective taking – seeing what your friends are experiencing at home from behind your screen is nearly impossible. More than ever try to ask questions and be interested in the answers! Get context about where your friends are, what they have been up to, co-ruminate, and get all the deets.

Body language is still important and can help emulate the proximity you would have during a real life conversation. Show your friends that you are interested in what they have to say, and are actively listening and contributing to the conversation and the relationship. Eye contact is another way to connect with people. A study also found that virtual eye contact is just as important as real life eye contact, triggering autonomic arousal and other facial/emotional reactions (Hietanen et al., 2020). These emotional reactions can be cues for what our friends are thinking about and how they feel.

Videos on Zoom make us hyper-self-aware, constantly looking at our little box to see what we look like and how others see us. While it may make you anxious, try to avoid it – checking yourself out divides our attention and distracts us from the conversation at hand. People who looked at themselves more during video calls were less certain when recalling information about their partners (Miller et al, 2017). So keep your video on, look at your friends (not yourself!), and be engaged!

But we get it, zoom fatigue is REAL. At the end of a day of screen time it is so hard to engage in more interactions. Plus, scheduling time with people is hard, and it is so easy to drift off and check your email or be on your phone when talking to friends. But remember, your friends are so important and social connection is really fulfilling (you won’t regret catching up with friends every now and then, promise!). Even if it’s just a quick 10 minutes, give your full attention to your friends like you would in real life.

Empathy — Gracie

Last but not least in the friendship survival guide is… empathy. It’s 2020, and being emotionally available and woke is cool. So, I want to propose a way to use empathy in friendships, in whatever way they are taking form (@Zoom).

I think that the construct of empathy is a goal – not a default. Empathy doesn’t seem to be a one-trick pony, that we either use or do not use in socialization. Instead, I think that empathy is what happens when you learn to ~healthily~ balance multiple aspects of interacting with another person and their emotions in a meaningful way (hence the reason I called it a “construct”). Empathy in excess can lead to us constantly carrying someone else’s emotional baggage, which is no bueno for mental health. But without empathy, we might be unresponsive to others’ feelings, which can make us come off as cold, lame, or like we don’t care.

So somewhere in the middle of this mess is a great ratio of: acknowledging someone’s emotions (good or bad), recognizing that sometimes it isn’t your responsibility to help rectify someone’s emotions, all the while, remembering that they aren’t your emotions, and someone else’s problems don’t automatically become yours. This is what empathy is to me. So when you’re looking to make a friend, remember the difference between being emotionally “available” and emotionally “vulnerable.”

“Sure Gracie, but that’s easier said than done.”

I know. But in my experience with close relationships, the WRONG kind of empathy can act as a vicious cycle. A friend vents to you, you feel bad for them, you take on that friend’s emotions, and now you’re feeling down. And when you’re feeling down, you can’t offer the same healing powers to your friend that you might have been able to, had you been a little more emotionally resilient. Suddenly you can’t be the distraction or the good laugh, the cuddler or the “show them a good time”-er (LMK if you figured out how to cuddle via Zoom). A finding in this week’s paper might show evidence of this – when assessing what aspects of interpersonal mindfulness could act as mediators for influencing friendship quality, perspective-taking was a significant explanatory mediator, but empathy (defined as literally taking on one’s emotions) was not (Pratscher et al, 2018). This might mean that a friendship does well  with empathy in moderation. Too much, and you’re a vibe killer, always harshing the mellow. Too little, and you’re a jerk whose stuck in the early 2000s, when not caring was cool.


While we might have thrown a lot of stuff at you, if you take one thing from this post, it’s this: while consciously thinking about skills like imitation, mind perception, or empathy might certainly help you be engaged in socialization, when you’re making friends, it’s also important to follow your heart (so much cheese I know I’m SORRY – Gracie). But seriously, you’ll have that gut feeling when a new relationship is going well, is healthy, and can become really meaningful (if it isn’t already). And the right people will bring the best out of you. Friendship is an organic process, and life has a funny way of bringing people together. So don’t give up on the whole online interactions thing yet!



James, Christi, & Gracie




Hietanen, JO, Peltola, MJ, Hietanen, JK. Psychophysiological responses to eye contact in a live interaction and in video call. Psychophysiology. 2020; 57:e13587.


Ledbetter, A.M., Griffin, E. and Sparks, G.G. (2007), Forecasting “friends forever”: A longitudinal investigation of sustained closeness between best friends. Personal Relationships, 14: 343-350. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2007.00158.x


Matthew K. Miller, Regan L. Mandryk, Max V. Birk, Ansgar E. Depping, and Tushita Patel. 2017. Through the Looking Glass: The Effects of Feedback on Self-Awareness and Conversational Behaviour during Video Chat. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’17). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 5271–5283. DOI:


Nahemow, L., & Lawton, M. P. (1975). Similarity and propinquity in friendship formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(2), 205–213.…


Pratscher, S. D., Rose, A. J., Markovitz, L., & Bettencourt (2018). Interpersonal mindfulness: Investigating mindfulness in interpersonal interactions, co-rumination, and friendship quality. Mindfulness, 9(4), 1206-1215.


Stel, M., & Vonk, R. (2010). Mimicry in social interaction: Benefits for mimickers, mimickees, and their interaction. British Journal of Psychology, 101(2), 311-323.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // Oct 18th 2020 at 4:49 pm

    Hi James, Christi, and Gracie 🙂

    I loved how you guys framed this blog post in the form of a survival guide, the familiar format made the post very easy to follow and enjoyable to read! Y’all’s tone was so fun and engaging and I loved getting to see your personalities come through your writing (gotta love the cheese hehe @Gracie). I also really appreciated your incorporation of and reference to Unit I in the blog, it helped to situate me as the reader to the content of the blog and prepared me to evaluate how it relates to building blocks of social connection.

    I think the blog had a strong start with James’ shifting of the content we’ve been discussing in class over the past couple of weeks to the context of Zoom. It was such a clever idea to cater the tips in the friendship survival guide to our new virtual reality, because it helped to highlight the stakes of the results from the studies that we’ve talked about in class and give them meaning through real life examples. This gives a lot of material to consider for potential modifications/applications from what we’ve read to make our learning circumstances/ways that we interact online… well, better!

    Additionally, Christi I found that your inclusion of the Hietanent et al (2020) and Miller et al (2017) studies made really unique contributions to the stakes (or the “so what”) of talking about the building blocks of social connection. While I had heard many times before that holding eye contact during in-person interactions can strengthen relationships, it was fascinating to find that similar outcomes could be induced through holding eye contact or engagement via emotional reactions over virtual platforms. It makes me wonder to what extent this effect on people’s interactions can be moderated by the context (planned 1-1 Zoom chat vs. 100 person lecture vs. 1-1 random breakout room assignment).

    Thanks y’all!!

  • Anonymous // Oct 18th 2020 at 4:52 pm

    The “I loved how you guys framed this post in the form of a survival guide…” comment is from Gaby hehe

  • gracerotondo // Oct 19th 2020 at 4:28 pm

    James, Christi, and Gracie – loved this post!!

    James, your take on imitation is so true – I’ve found myself imitating others’ behavior much more often over Zoom than I would be (or at least think I would be) in person. However, I haven’t made any new friends through room imitation…yet.

    Christi – I find myself paying so much more attention to how I look on Zoom than I ever would in person, which is so distracting and annoying! I think the hard thing with Zoom is that it’s so easy to make it look like you’re paying attention and making eye contact with whomever you’re talking to because you’re looking at the screen the whole time, but in reality it’s easier to distract yourself from the conversation. I think the act of noticing this discrepancy and ~being mindful~ of it is the first step in trying to fix it so that we can have more fulfilling interactions albeit over Zoom.

    Gracie, I thought your analysis of empathy as a vibe killer was really interesting. It can be hard for me at times to not be overbearing and not over-empathize because I’m worried that if I don’t take on my friends’ emotions, then I’m being an inconsiderate jerk. So, I really appreciate the reminder that moderation is key – even in the case of empathy.

    Thanks for an awesome blog post!

  • Anonymous // Oct 19th 2020 at 11:03 pm

    Hey James, Christi, and Gracie,

    Thanks for this fun post!

    I had never thought about using the amplified facial expressions we see on Zoom to my advantage until now. Now, I realize how easy it really is to just look at someone’s up close on face on my computer and try to mimic that person. Subtlety, of course!

    It was interesting to learn that the idea of eye contact is just as important virtually. I find it really hard to make eye contact through a computer screen, but I will definitely make a more conscious effort to do so now! It’s also so hard to not look at yourself on zoom LOL or look at a certain person or friend the whole time. I find myself getting super distracted during class because there’s so many options of people to look at!

    I can totally relate to Gracie’s point about feeling down from taking on a friend’s emotion – I definitely need to make sure I am empathetic with moderation. I always say that everything is okay in moderation (usually in relation to food that I want to eat, but I know isn’t the best choice at midnight before morning practice), and I should really adopt it in terms of how much empathy I show!


  • Patrick Adolphus // Oct 20th 2020 at 1:05 am

    @James This is probably going to sound bad, but I wonder if there are any papers that would show an inverse effect of proximity on relationship quality because I’ve noticed sometimes that if I spend too much time with a person, I might start to get tired of them or start to pick up on a lot of little pet peeves that would otherwise go under the radar.

    @Christi I feel like maintaining eye contact through zoom is almost impossible. I was thinking about it one day when I noticed that everyone seems to be staring right underneath you on video calls. That’s when I realized, if you want to appear as though you’re making eye contact, you have to look straight into the camera, but then you aren’t really looking at the the other person, so only one person can have the impression of eye contact being made at a time. Otherwise, both of you appear to be staring under each other or both of you are too busy looking at the camera to see one another. I wonder what the effects are on social connection for each respective person depending on whether you’re the person staring at the camera or the other person who thinks they’re making eye contact.

    @Gracie If I remember correctly, I think one of the papers we read showed no correlation between relationships and emotional empathy although there was a correlation with cognitive empathy. I wonder how they arrived at such a conclusion because I agree with you. If someone seems to not share in the emotion at all, but still take my perspective, I might appreciate their role in helping me think through the situation, but I’d still think they’re cold; more of a psychiatrist vibe than a friend vibe without the emotional empathy in my honest opinion.

  • Anonymous // Oct 20th 2020 at 3:58 am

    Hey y’all!

    First off, I loved the way you framed this blog – it feels very personal and relatable while still bringing in some great evidence for the survival guide tips you recommend (and the intro is great!).

    I really appreciated the note that James’s section ends on – it can honestly feel pretty stressful if you feel like you have to ~master~ all of these skills in order to maintain the friendships we have in this new virtual world, but in the end these tools are inherently part of our subconscious. Even in such an unusual situation, we’re still built to use these skills for our survival and can keep applying them now.

    Christi’s section on body language also reminded me a lot of the NYT’s 36 Questions That Lead to Love that is brought up in the lecturette this week – at the end of asking and answering these questions, it recommends that you and your partner stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes. While this honestly seems like my personal hell, it could also be a helpful tool in taking a moment to really consider that other person’s perspective and thoughts. It’ll be interesting to consider mind perception even more from the perspective of romantic relationships in particular.

    Finally, I thought Gracie made great points about finding that ~perfect ratio~ in empathy. Finding this line between not completely carrying someone else’s emotional baggage and completely shutting down can be really hard, but working towards empathy in moderation is a great way to frame it. And as always, loved the hopeful (and cheesy) note you end off on!

    great work!!
    – Rachel

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