Keep in touch! Old friends appreciate when people reach out more than we think

WASHINGTON — Do phone calls from long-lost friends really excite you? You’re not alone. A new study finds people often underestimate how much their old friends will appreciate receiving a call from them out of the blue.

Researchers found that participants who called, texted, or emailed someone in their social circle just to say hello consistently underrated how much their friend would value hearing from them. Meanwhile, the friend receiving the message placed a much higher value on the surprise social interaction.

“People are fundamentally social beings and enjoy connecting with others,” explains lead author Peggy Liu, PhD, from the University of Pittsburgh, in a media release. “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.”

Friends love when you call ‘just because’

The study featured several experiments involving over 5,900 people, looking at what factors play into the amount of appreciation someone feels when others contact them.

In one experiment, study authors asked half of the participants to remember the last time they contacted someone their social circle “just because” or “just to catch up” after not speaking with them for a really long time. The rest of the group took the opposite approach, remembering when a long-lost friend reached out to them.

The two groups then had to rate on a seven-point scale (1 meaning “not at all” and 7 meaning “to a great extent”) how much the person receiving this communication appreciated, or felt grateful, thankful, or pleased about the message. For people making the call, this meant guessing how much their friend enjoyed hearing from them. For the people receiving the call, they simply had to rate how much they appreciated hearing from a long-last pal.

Results show the people reaching out significantly underrated their friend’s appreciation when comparing the two groups.

People enjoy surprises

In a separate experiment, the participants sent a short note or a small gift to someone they hadn’t seen in a while. Just like in the previous experiment, the group had to rate on a seven-point scale how much they thought their friend would appreciate this surprise.

After the participants sent their notes and gifts, the team asked the recipients to also rate how much they appreciated receiving a gift from an old friend. Again, the person receiving the surprise placed a much higher value on the contact than the person sending out the gift.

“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,” Liu adds. “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.”

Don’t let the pandemic stand in your way

Researchers say that many people have likely lost touch with members of their social circle in recent years. Aside from people naturally drifting away from those they went to high school or college with, the pandemic has added another layer of social isolation for some.

Moreover, the team says people often worry about how someone with perceive the gesture of reaching out after a long period of silence. However, the new study finds saying hello “just because” is a much more welcome surprise than many may think.

“I sometimes pause 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,” Liu concludes. “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 my reaching out to them.”

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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  1. Uh, no they don’t. Nobody likes to hear from anyone who has disappeared out of their lives after let’s say 5 to 40 years. The reason why people fall out of touch, is because there was nothing there to keep them in your orbit. This non news article is so full of crap. I can tell you right now, at no point has anyone I used to talk to contacted me out of the blue. If they did, it’s only because there’s probably some unresolved issue that could have been dealt with in an ignored e-mail.

    Nobody likes surprises. This article is full of lies. The only people who do like surprises are people in nursing homes. They don’t have anyone to talk to, and when they get a phone call, it’s as much of a shock to them, as it is the person who accidentally dialed the wrong number. Old people appreciate friends coming out of the woodwork, because it means they’re still ALIVE.

    I am still young enough to appreciate the jaw dropping endless silence that a lack of a social circle provides. Thank God none of the people who I used to talk to reach out. Because if they ask me what I’m up to, I’d have to tell them about my nefarious supervillain schemes and who wants to hear about that?

    1. Couldn’t disagree with you more. I’ve gotten in touch with people after a long time, and they were very happy to hear from me. Others have reached out to me after many years, and I was thrilled. Even if I did hear from someone I’d rather not—it wouldn’t be that hard to discourage further contact without being rude. And guess what? I’m not an old person in a nursing home either. I must say you sure don’t sound like someone who’s a lot of fun on a Saturday night. You’re right about one thing though: I do not want to hear about your “nefarious supervillain schemes.”

      1. I am going to defend Tom for a moment even though I probably shouldn’t. He doesn’t like surprises and never really has from what I remember. He likes things pretty clear and easy to assess. That is part of his personality.

        Now for my part he has made me the villain of some nefarious supervillain plot. Made assumptions about why I would reach out. I was dumb and let it upset me.

        I will say there was a time he was pretty fun on a Saturday night and I kind of hope he still is.

        I think like you though. I’d like people to reach out, but due to life and a stalker I have had a drastic name change and thus it makes it harder for those reconnections to happen, so I have been reaching out. I don’t want to end life as someone’s untold story.

    1. Worse than crap, real shit. There is a reason friends from long ago stay long ago.

  2. There’s also the issue of millennials not reaching out via phone. My peers like to be on social media a lot, so you get dm’s these days. But social media can be pretty toxic, distracting, and just alienating, so I’m not into that type of engagement any more. I miss the days when friends would just call after school and we’d chat for an hour or so just because. Now you can go a year without talking to someone, and they’ll write you a 10 page long message exchange if you get writing, but if you try and have a phone call they act like a fish outta water. This is not at all socially gratifying to me, nor do I have an hour long window in which I can afford for both of my hands to be tied up writing/my neck bent towards a screen. I even have friends with carpal tunnel bc they message so much, but they still don’t like phone calls. So I’ve just stopped engaging with a lot of people solely due stylistic differences of socializing. But these preferences for socialization tend to play out in their life philosophies too, like being a little self centered and conformist, or maintaining a lot of superficial non-reciprocal bonds…I know people who actually thought we were close bc they’ve seen my posts on social media, when I used to engage. That just isn’t real. The minimum real socialization is a phone call. Much better is a video call. I maintained a kinda phone relationship for a year or two with an old friend of mine awhile back. When we finally met in person I realized that she was quite snarky and had some serious issues and I just hadn’t been able see any of her facial expressions the entire time. Seeing someone’s face is rly important and will tell you a lot about how they think during a conversation. I can’t believe I rly need to say this these days, but I rly do.

  3. WTF … did they run out of things to talk about… Some psycho-babble about people that ghosted you for a decade or more are now seeking you out, and it’s ok? If anyone from that long ago called me, they don’t say, “Oh, I couldnt find your number”… every zucking person that has a phone has numbers… and many dont bother to delete them… so I’m calling B.S. My phone number hasn’t changed for decades, and their is a reason why I dont get calls from people in my prior decades. I can count the important people in my life on ONE HAND. Again, this is B.S. and they are putting on a Ruze for the Generations of younger people that can be dicked around with.. Don’t believe this crap.

  4. Since someone mentioned me reaching out in a podcast and then referred to this article I felt I should weigh in. Which this article was pretty easy to find with the right key words.
    I’ve had to move a number of times due in part to my own stupidity and the cruelty of others. So, I lost touch with people. I honestly can say I felt some would be disappointed in how I had failed at life. So, because I wasn’t always in a good place I pushed people out, sometimes good people who could have supported me.
    I have had to change my name so the likelihood now if people finding me is pretty slim, so as I’ve settled into things I will find a desire to reconnect. Most people are happy to hear from me because I guess the rumor has been that I died or something.
    Anyway….I don’t mind hearing from friends or family because I know I lost contact usually because I didn’t fight hard enough to keep them in my life because I failed. So…yeah maybe I was and still am the villain of their story.

  5. This is a great write up–and more communication is almost always better than less. I use an app called CommuniqAI to help with this and it makes keeping in touch almost effortless.

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