Ingeborg van Teeseling

Parasocial Relationships: Missing a Friend I’ve Never Met

As her favorite radio host is now on holidays, Australian Ingeborg van Teeseling explains the unique and strangely real relationships we form with our chosen media figureheads.

 

This week, thousands of people in Sydney and elsewhere will go into moderate depression. I will be one of them. It is not the type of depression where you need professional help or medication, but it is a profound, if temporary, sadness.

This misery is caused by the holidays that have overtaken the media.

Instead of our normal presenters on radio and television, we are confronted with different voices and faces, and we don’t like it.

Of course, we realize that people need time off once in a while and, because we like them, we don’t begrudge them their time on the beach. Still, we feel abandoned and even a little deserted when they are not there, in their normal spot, at their normal time, every day of the week.

Academia, of course, has a name for our affliction. What we are suffering from is called a parasocial breakup, and it is more common than we know. The parasocial relationship was first discovered in 1956, just after television had become more or less mainstream. Sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl described a bond that most of us have with radio or television personalities as “intimacy at a distance,” “a seemingly face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer.” Especially when we listen to or view a program on a regular basis, we develop a connection to its moderator, which goes beyond mere consumption of information. In fact, a parasocial relationship is, for most of us, almost as strong as our attachment to our real-life friends. Sometimes it is even better: Our parasocial mates demand nothing, we can shut them down when we want to, and we can dip in and out of the relationship without any feelings of guilt or responsibility.

My best imaginary friend is ABC 702’s afternoon host Richard Glover. Almost every day between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. he keeps me company. Sometimes in the car or while I am making dinner, doing work or playing cards with my beloved. He is warm, evenhanded, generally nice to people, a great interviewer and, when there is an emergency like a bushfire or a flood, he makes me feel safe. I am not the only one who feels this way about Glover. Tens of thousands of people listen to him every day and together we form a network, a club. We share information, but also emotions and opinions. In a way, we feel like co-creators of the program. Sometimes we even change each other’s lives. Last week, for instance, there was a discussion about victims of crime. A woman called in, telling the story of her abuse as a child. Petrea King offered advice and a course for PTSD sufferers at her Quest for Life Foundation. When it became clear that the woman could not afford this training, members of our little collective of listeners started offering money to pay for it.

The issue with parasocial relationships is that sometimes the lines between the relationship in our heads and the real one start to blur. One of the best examples of this was an episode of the long-running British soap Coronation Street. It was the 1960s and the writers had come up with a road accident in which one of the main characters was badly hurt. Immediately, hundreds of people started calling into the BBC to offer their assistance: A place for the wounded person to recuperate, money, even temporary babysitters for her children. Clearly, viewers had forgotten that it was all make-belief and that the street and its inhabitants did not really exist.

A similar thing happened in the 1990s in Holland. For more than five years, a brand of cat food had used a particular cat called Felix in its advertisements. Over time, Felix became the country’s favorite feline, our cat, so when he was taken off the air, thousands of people wrote letters expressing concern.

Was Felix okay? Did he need a new home?

And then there was the wrap-up of the sitcom Friends after ten years of weekly episodes. When researchers asked their participants to tell them how they felt after the show had been taken off the air, they recorded serious cases of the blues; people felt distressed, lonely, as well as a little shameful. They knew their mates were not real and they were confused by the depth of their feeling of loss. But somehow, in their minds, there had been mutuality there, a two-way street that was now being unilaterally broken up.

So parasocial relationships are strong and powerful, and this is completely understandable, because they work exactly the same as real-life relationships. You meet somebody by coincidence, and the more time you spend with them, the more the bond turns into a habit. This habit then strengthens the behavior, because as people we do what works. Historically, the most impressive examples were Franklin D Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats between 1933 and 1944. It was a difficult time in America, first with a serious depression, then with WWII. People were scared and had started hoarding; first food, then money, then gold. Roosevelt needed to do something and his solution was regular radio broadcasts to the nation. This had never been done before, but Roosevelt turned out to be a master of the genre. He used informal, simple language, and made sure his listeners felt that he was actually talking to his “dear friends.” It worked. After the first one, half the people who had been taking their money out of the banks, brought it back, and over time, it gave Roosevelt the support he needed to proceed with his new deal and enter WWII. At the height, 70 percent of Americans, more than 60 million people, listened as Roosevelt explained the world to them. Because he had put himself at their level and made them part of the decision-making process, they felt empowered and happy to follow his lead.

Like all relationships, parasocial ones are built on trust and regularity, and they can change (a little bit of) the world. Research into the viewing audience of Will & Grace concluded that the more people watched the show, the lower their level of prejudice against gay men was. Even better: viewers who had few direct gay contacts changed their behavior even more. Also, we now know that this is the same all over the world. In 2005, researchers looked at parasocial relationships among Arabic speakers in 137 countries. They wanted to know how and why people were watching Al Jazeera and what they thought of its credibility. Again, the parasocial bond turned out to be the key. Viewers identified with presenters and even with other viewers who watched those presenters. They felt part of the club and trusted their favorite television personalities to tell them the truth and help them moderate the world.

When those bonds are broken, there is a hole. Last Friday, Linda Mottram quit her 4-year stint as presenter of ABC 702’s Mornings programme. There was a farewell party, with freshly shucked oysters and champagne, but her Facebook page went into mourning. Hundreds of people told Mottram that they would miss her and that her departure felt “like losing an old friend.” “You kept me company,” they said; “this is a sad day for us all.” For some listeners, all they could manage was a heartfelt, “Oh no!,” because her presence had been “like having a really intelligent, fun, and insightful person at my breakfast table.”

For most of us, the parting is only temporary. Our friends will be back after their holidays. In the meantime, we have to do all the heavy lifting ourselves. Moderate and curate our own world, find flesh-and-blood companions to fill the void. In the case of my fellow Glover-followers and me, there is his autobiography Flesh Wounds, which, undoubtedly because of the parasocial connection, recently made it into the top five of The Bookshow viewers’ favorites. Because yes, we put our money where our mouths, and liaisons, are. We might feel slightly ashamed, but we love the connection, illusion or otherwise.

 

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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