We are all unwitting participants in a massive social experiment that began slowly after World War II and gathered speed in the last decade with the introduction of the smart phone.  We have created virtual personas, online worlds, digital connections, social media lives, email relationships, audio-conference teams, video linkups – the whole panoply of ways that we now communicate with one another virtually.

That ability to communicate virtually seemed at first to be an unmitigated advance – we could communicate faster, more easily, with less friction, at our own convenience, to multiples of our previous audiences, with the click of a mouse or a ‘send’ button.

It’s only recently that we’re starting to realize that this huge social experiment has a downside too.  We’ve started to worry about shorter attention spans, and we wonder if the Internet makes us stupid.  But the real downside has remained largely invisible to us because it touches on the workings of our unconscious minds.

What’s happened is that, as we’ve made room for virtual communication in our lives, our workplaces, and in all the ways we connect with one another, we haven’t fully realized how emotionally empty virtual communications are.  Every form of virtual communication strips out the emotional subtext of our communications to a greater or lesser extent.  Every one.

Take email, for example.  We’ve all experienced the frustration of sending an email that was (to us) obviously meant to be a joke.  But the recipient, instead of being amused, was offended, and we had to spends huge amounts of time repairing the relationship.   That’s the simplest, most obvious form of emotional undercutting that virtual communications foist on us.

Most of us have also spent hours on audio conferences at work, with the mute button in force, taking care of other business while people on the other end of the box drone on endlessly.  We’ve had to lunge for that mute button when the boss suddenly says, “Nick, are you still on?  What do you think of the new cross-eyed widget?”

And then there’s social media, which would seem to be all about emotional connection, but in fact is like Pringle’s potato chips that you need to keep eating because one doesn’t satisfy.  The bland taste creates a need for more but doesn’t allow you to stop.  We get one ‘like’ on Facebook, enjoy a brief ‘hit’ of pleasure, and crave more.  We get social love on Twitter and Instagram, and it’s just enough to keep us checking our mobile phones hundreds of times per day.

In short, we’ve transferred a surprisingly large amount of our human interactions to the virtual world, and as a result, we no longer get the emotional information, support, and reinforcement we used to get without thinking about it while communicating face-to-face.

Next post: the frightening truth about the result of this giant social experiment.

I’m delighted to announce to you insiders who follow my blog that pre-orders for my new book, Can You Hear Me? are now available on Amazon.  The book will be released by Harvard in October 2018, and the long run up to publication day begins now.  This blog post and the next one are excerpted from the introduction to the book.  If the subject matter intrigues you, please sign up for your own pre-ordered copy.  Pre orders allow the publisher to gauge interest in the book and prepare accordingly. More pre orders means more support from the publisher, a better print run and wider distribution.  If a lot of you sign up for pre orders, paradoxically, it will greatly increase the chance that Harvard will persuade Barnes and Noble to carry physical copies of the book in their stores, at least the bigger ones in hot locations.  That increases the chance that people will be able to stumble on the book, on a shelf in an actual bookstore, and that would be very cool indeed. So please, if you love communications, this blog, or apple pie, go to Amazon and pre order the book today.  Thank you.

7 Comments

  1. I got off Facebook a few weeks ago. I thought I might miss it, but I don’t, and I think I don’t because (as you say here) the FB connection with others is emotionally empty, far blander than the real connections I’ve had with those same people. FB seemed like a necessary tool to “keep up” with friends. But I began to feel that I had to keep dropping in on FB to shore up the weak connections, thinking it was possible to fan the little flame into a big one if only I kept blowing on it to keep it from going out.

    Interesting that, when I announced that I was leaving FB, I heard from only one person, a nice long email and a sincere wish to stay connected, but not from anyone else. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the others, just as evidence that FB connections are very “lite” and, for that reason, unsatisfying.

    1. Maureen — thank you. I would be delighted to come back on your show. It’s a fave:-) It is with difficulty that I restrained myself from putting multiple exclamation points in those two sentences, BTW.

  2. Nick,

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t disagree with you more…for the most part. I do 90% of my business, virtually, via phone calls and screen sharing and I have been very successful at both. In my experience, there are three different demographics of clients. Baby Boomers, Generation X’ers, and Millenials.

    Both Baby Boomers and Millenials prefer to do things over the phone with one main difference. As a Financial Advisor, Baby Boomers prefer me to receive a commission rather than receive fee-based advice as long as I’m a fiduciary and I’m upfront and transparent about the commission amounts and possible conflicts of interest. Millenials, on the other hand, while they also prefer to do all of their business over the phone, would rather pay a set per month rate for fee-based advise and be able to contact me, via the phone, anytime they need to during office hours.

    However, then there’s the Gen-X’ers like myself. We don’t trust doing business over the phone other than the initial contact. We prefer to sit on the same side of the table as the Advisor while he/she explains everything to us. Sometimes, we will allow you to get additional email from us to put together a financial plan but you MUST see us in person to go over the plan.

    Therefore, in my business, I usually am able to handle to first 2-3 meetings over the phone but the final meeting (where I will receive their check in the amount of their investment) it is required that I show up in person. As a Gen-X’er, I can’t blame them. Especially since their investment is usually in the 10’s if not 100’s of thousands of dollars.

    In conclusion, it seems that Baby Boomers have adapted to new technology, for the most part, and realize that in today’s world business sometimes needs to be conducted, virtually. Millenials were born into the technology and, therefore, accept it wholeheartedly and expect to do business, virtually. While the rest of us were exposed to the technology beginning in our 20’s and even though we have no reservations with doing business, virtually, we grew up in a world where business wasn’t done without a proper firm handshake and a personal relationship with the person we are doing business with. With that said, I have been able to establish emotional relationships with most of my clients over the phone. Face-to-face connections aren’t necessarily required. Even so, with Gen-X’ers, they still feel they need to solidify their trust with a F2F connection.

    1. Thanks, Harry, for your comment. Your comments actually support the argument in my upcoming book, so I’d ask you to withhold final judgment until you have the chance to understand the whole idea, not just this brief introduction. My point is not that you can’t do sales successfully in the virtual world, but that there are some key elements of communications that don’t get transmitted as well virtually. Trust is more fragile as a result — and I’m talking about the kind of long-term trust a team of people that work together need, not the temporary trust of a sale.

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