Social interaction involves actions or practices of two or more people that are mutually oriented toward each other and influence each other's subjective experiences. Those taking part in social interaction must be aware of each other although physical contact is not a necessary condition. Social interaction can be characterized by its form and content. There are three categories of attributes that define the form of the interaction - communication modality, participation rate and communication network.
Communication modality can be verbal or nonverbal. Verbal communication is carried out through the spoken language while nonverbal communication includes other means of expression like gestures or eye contact. Typical functions of nonverbal behavior may include giving information about feelings and attitudes, expressing emotions of personal nature or establishing control. Communication can be carried out by using different parts of the body as communication channels. These channels may include eye contact, facial expression, posture, gestures, touch or tone of voice. Using some or all of these channels simultaneously allows people to convey a particularly clear meaning.
A gaze may indicate interest, represent dominant attitude or regulate a social interaction. Eye contact, on the other hand, occurs when two people are gazing at each other simultaneously. There are many facial expressions representing different combinations of behaviors and emotions, both positive and negative. Some of them can be clearly identified, like happiness, surprise, fear or anger, while others can be more subtle or spontaneous and may be hard to depict.
Similarly to facial expression posture, gesture and touch can communicate various types of behavior. Gestures may be used in various ways - as an illustration of somebody's words, as their complete substitution or to stress a point while speaking. Other examples are when listeners give feedback to the speaker that they are still following or when people signal that they want the floor by waving their hand. The aggregate of various nonverbal vocal sounds and speech modifiers which convey meaning can be described as paralanguage. Speaking order and talking time are common examples of paralanguage indicators.
Generally accepted is that some people talk more than others. Moreover, the most frequent speaker in an interaction addresses the group more often than specific individuals while also receiving most communications from other group members. This phenomenon is called participation rate and it is different for each participant in the interaction. Individual participation rate can be determined by a number of different factors including the size of the group and the participation rates of the other members.
Social interaction is also characterized by different types of communication networks. In terms of efficiency of working groups there are two main structures of communication networks - centralized and decentralized. Centralized networks are built around informal hierarchies based on participation rates of different members. This structure is dominated by one or a few members who communicate the most.
Most researchers believe that centralized networks produce better results in terms of time to solution and number of errors. However, this is only true when we are talking about simple tasks requiring the active participation of just one member of the group. Solutions to more complex tasks tend to be provided more effectively by decentralized (or circle) communication networks. The reason for this is the greater amount of analysis and integration related to difficult tasks.
The content of social interaction can be represented through different conceptual schemes. The interaction process analysis is characterized by two main features. The first one is the distinction between activities aimed at achieving a task and such expressing emotions. Groups are usually formed with the purpose of achieving a goal. During the process of task completion, however, members inevitably encounter certain difficulties. Tension builds within the group that may threaten its functioning and stability. The relief of such tensions demands engagement in another type of activities aimed at dealing with social emotions.
Social interaction research also explores the action-response relationships within a group. Every action in a group provokes a certain reaction, and the balancing of action and reaction over time improves group stability and increases group efficiency in the long run. The social exchange theory looks at social relationships from a different angle. Social interaction is perceived as a specific exchange through which various resources such as emotions or status can be traded. People tend to engage in social interaction only if they can make a profit and gain more than they have invested.