The subject of social interaction is challenging in a variety of ways. On one level, it is an enormous construct removed from personal behaviors. In this sense it is nothing more than the processes by which all people relate to one another in social arenas, seeking to satisfy and provide emotional needs. On another, it is an action that completely defies definition because, no matter the degree of similarity, every social interaction is unique. Each exists to represent the ambitions and feelings of those present in the moment, and levels within these ambitions and feelings are as many and complex as human nature itself. Added to this is the reality that modern technology, allowing social communication in virtually limitless ways, is changing the very essence of social interaction, as differences of quantity must affect quality and substance. Ultimately, social interaction remains a vast and critical study, even as its evolving and complex nature renders study elusive.
To understand social interaction on any level, it is first necessary to note the processes going to its creation. This is human behavior, after all, and as such is generated by multiple influences within each human. As studies support, people approach social contact with others in ways based upon, and developing, perceptions and impressions of those others. Often, the interaction is in fact based upon an expectation of behavior to be shared, as the individual seeks out others for specific purposes trusted to be met. As clinical as that seems, it equates to nothing more than a friend meeting with another friend to exchange gossip or jokes. What matters is that personal experience provides information, and information relied upon to fulfill a social need. In these cases and in those involving strangers, however, there is a constant stream of new information coming in, altering or shaping the current impressions (Teiford, 2008, p. 82). This renders social interaction a living process, and one consequently unpredictable, no matter the foundation of experience.
The importance of this factor of social interaction unpredictability, or potential, is meaningful in terms of sociological theory, or any attempt to understand a society as a whole. The society itself is actually created by how individual interactions occur, because these interactions represent how the people believe ordinary life is carried on. More exactly, Symbolic Interaction Theory holds that it is in face-to-face contact that the society as a whole is expressed and developed (Andersen, Taylor, 2006, p. 22); the interactions “symbolize” or represent the larger culture. What this translates to is how even the most minor social interactions carry meaning. In essence, we all create our culture and society with every interaction, as we modify our behaviors based on accumulating experience. The whole is made through the inestimable parts, and is as changeable as any of those parts.
Complicating this already complex field is modern communication technology. For example, it is noted how cell phones have completely blurred the line between traditional public and private spaces, and we all witness this every day. The person next to us on the plane or bus is engaged in a “private” conversation, and this creates new dimensions to multiple forms of interaction. On one level, as I perceive it, the caller is in a sense demanding a recognition of their right to hold this conversation in public; there is the feeling that those within the social arena are obligated to “not listen.” Then, the call itself is elevated in meaning because it clearly has priority over the existing, literal space, even as there are limits here as to what may be safely exchanged.
Consequently, a set of parameters is in place not present before the communication technology created them, and these are parameters that must influence both the literal and virtual interactions. Certainly, the more focus that is paid to the call translates to a lesser awareness of the surrounding arena, just as we see when people hold up lines because they are, socially, not in the actual space. Some believe that the constant communication opportunities offered by cells expands the possibilities of interaction in ways we can barely understand as yet. The person on the way to a gathering, for instance, and in touch by cell with friends, is able to know their progress, states of mind, and even what they are wearing. (Ling, 2004, p. 185). Personally, however, I believe that we are trading meaningful contact for the superficial in our increased reliance on such technology. We are, in my view, spreading social interaction very thinly.
Social interaction is nothing more than the behaviors of people coming together apart from specific, non-social need, and this alone renders it an incalculably complex thing. Then, every occasion of interaction is both influenced by individual perceptions and part of a greater whole, that of the society’s concept of how such interactions proceed. Add to this the striking factor of communication technology today, and social interaction remains a vast and important study, even as its evolving and complex nature renders study elusive.
- Andersen, M. L., & Taylor, H. F. (2008). Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Belmont: Cengage Learning.
- Ling, R. (2004). The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone’s Impact on Society. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.
- Teiford, J. B. (2008). Social Perception: 21st Century Issues and Challenges. New York: Nova Publishers.