For most people, moving into the digital world to communicate means experiencing significant loss of clarity, ease, and depth.  You struggle to convey the lightness of tone you want in an email, and risk offending your colleague because the smile doesn’t come through.  You tune out during an audio conference because some connection is missing and you can’t stay focused virtually for ninety minutes.  You flounder to find the right sense of engagement on a Skype call – it’s a job interview, but the interviewer is calling in from her home office (as you are) and how does that change the dynamics of the interview?  Are you at home or at work?  Is the right tone more or less open, more or less formal, more or less sincere?

You can’t find good emotional footing in the virtual world today

Over and over again, people find that they struggle when trying to communicate virtually.  Something – a lot – is missing.  It’s harder to get the nuances, the emotions, and the details right.  Does that mean that the digital world makes us stupider? Less able to concentrate? Less desirous of an emotional connection?

No, it just demands that we learn to behave differently.  We need to learn a new set of rules – like learning to communication in a new language.  The virtual pushes us to invest in multiple different worlds, often simultaneously. These new worlds come with new, vague codes of conduct and create new needs. A lot of work we used to take for granted, because it was done automatically by our unconscious minds in face-to-face communications, now has to be done consciously and intentionally.  The digital world forces us to re-wire our unconscious communication habits for conscious success.

In-person communication is incredibly rich, loaded with information about how the person we’re talking to is feeling at every second of the conversation. It’s satisfying in a way virtual communication can’t be.  Virtual communication is much ‘flatter’ – doing it effectively requires us to consciously and deliberately engage our own and other people’s emotions.

Thus our unconscious minds fail us at the doorway to the digital world. We need to learn how to put as much of the missing emotion, pattern-recognition, and memory back into the digital world that those well-intentioned digital inventors have stripped out.

The opportunity cost of all this free, fast information is much higher than we realize.

Sadly, the more we learn, the worse this world we’ve created looks.  Study after study documents the impoverishing effect of life in this digital era, this absurdist collation of unlimited data, supercomputers in our pockets, and endlessly trite, recycled, bite-sized information fed to us in ways that make sense for machines to broadcast, not humans to receive.

And the really bad news is that this world makes getting work done harder in ways that are difficult to see but no less crippling.

Our brains constantly scan the spaces around us, looking for danger patterns and making predictions.  We use the five senses that we’re aware of, and others that only our unconscious minds keep track of, like sensing the way the air changes around us when other humans or animals are drawing near.

The virtual world deprives most of those senses of information most of the time.  We simply don’t get the feedback we’re used to getting constantly and analyzing obsessively.  Our brains respond by filling up the sensory data with memories, made up stuff, and panic.  And thus we find the virtual world repetitive, confusing, and tension-filled.

I’m delighted to announce to you wonderful communication insiders who follow my blog that pre-orders for my new book, Can You Hear Me? are now available on Amazon.  This post is excerpted from the introduction of Can You Hear Me?  The book will be published by Harvard in October 2018, but please, if you love communication, this blog, or the first warm days of spring, go to Amazon and pre order the book today.  




  1. Hi Nick.

    My pre-order is in and I’m excited about enjoying your new book.

    I think your blogs are superb – I’m a total comms geek and there’s nothing I look forward to more than your next blog post.
    Keep on changing the world of communication for the better and thanks for sharing your expertise so openly.

    Best regards,

  2. “Does that mean that the digital world makes us stupider? Less able to concentrate? Less desirous of an emotional connection?”
    I think there is research that says that the digital world has made us less able to concentrate.

    1. Hi Andrew — thanks for the comment. It’s a subtle distinction, but there really are two questions — are we ill at ease (and less able to concentrate) when we’re in the virtual world? AND has the digital experience actually made us (more or less) permanently less able to concentrate? The answer to the first question is yes — that’s what the book is about. The answer to the second question (the one I was asking here) is not clear at all. There’s some research that says we respond with less ability to concentrate in the virtual world, but you have to set against that binge watching of Game of Thrones.

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