When humans communicate face-to-face, we do so with little conscious effort, most of the time. Even when language is a barrier, we can quickly get the gist of the idea through body language, facial expression, the emotion conveyed. When we communicate at a distance, virtually, the effort involved is considerable and the opportunities for miscommunication are multiplied.
Face-to-face communication is the norm for human behavior, even though it is getting hard to remember ever living life without a mobile phone. We evolved over millennia to communicate quickly, efficiently and easily face to face.
What happens when you put that fabulous organic communicating machine to work in a virtual environment?
The virtual environment is disastrous for our normal modes of communicating.
Picture a worker in a cubicle. Gray walls, gray chair, gray computer. Gray hum of background noise all around. When she picks up the phone, the way in which the voice is processed over that instrument cuts out most of the emotion. That’s why telephone calls and webinars are so boring. No emotion.
Now stretch that picture out, day after day, month after month, year after year. Is it any wonder that 70 percent of workers are either actively disengaged or not engaged according to the last Gallup poll?
Another recent study found that regular face-to-face communication cuts the risk of depression in adults by half. Phone and email don’t have the same effect.
Our unconscious minds need to get together so that they can find the emotional connections they crave. We humans are social beings. We don’t do well when deprived of our fellow humans.
We need to feed that unconscious mind, and we starve it at our peril as employers, as employees, as humans. We need face to face.
The virtual world is impoverished for us humans. We haven’t had time – evolutionary time – to change to accommodate the communication shift of the past half-century.
We are lost, bored, and alone.
Let’s go a little deeper. What are some of the most important missing pieces?
Think about how a normal face-to-face conversation goes. You use the eye contact at the beginning to make sure you’ve got the other person’s attention, then you launch into that story about the drunk dog, and you start looking up, down and sideways for inspiration, recall, and simply to give your listener a break. Then, when you’re ready to wrap up and hand the conversational baton off to your partner, you check back in with them with a clear signal of eye contact to say, “Almost done, get ready.”
Without eye contact, we have a hard time talking
Eye contact is thus an important regulator of communication. And it’s almost entirely missing from the virtual world.
Then there’s the magic of motion, as we regulate our fondness and dislike, interest and lack of it, attraction and repulsion, agreement and disagreement – all the polarities of normal human interaction. As we humans bob and weave face-to-face, the people around us effortlessly gauge our reactions and respond accordingly.
Take all that out and it’s hard to see how other people are reacting. And when we can’t judge reactions, the unconscious mind tends to make things up – to invent ways to fill the information stream we don’t have. As a result, we get angry at imagined slights or misjudge humor or check out when we should be paying attention. The virtual world is an emotion-and-intent-information desert.
Finally, there are mirror neurons. When we humans get together, we easily and wholeheartedly share emotions by firing neurons in our brains along with the people around us. At rock concerts, political rallies, and sporting events, we get excited thanks not only to the players or performers, but also because of the other fans.
Once again, mirror neurons have a hard time firing in the virtual world.
Virtual communicating is hard work.
This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, due out from Harvard in October. You can pre-order it here. And thanks!