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!


  1. My dear Friend Dr. Nick Morgan, it is a repeated pleasure to read your articles!
    I fully agree with your position on this problem of virtual communication.
    It is part of human nature to communicate face-to-face with a person, not with equipment. This even has a prehistoric explanation; the cavemen did not write, they only left some very simple drawings on the walls of the caves, the so-called cave drawings.

    And consequently, their communication needed to be face-to-face. This our ability to speak, acts along with our body language giving support to what we speak and having this language a very important role, because some 70 to 80% of our effective communication is corporal

    Human language is one of the newest skills, with the earliest olfaction.
    The evolutionary tree of the human lineage, arose 7 million years ago, being the current Homo sapiens, appeared some 200,000 years ago. It is believed that man began to speak – or began to speak – about 60,000 years before the Christian Era. This shows that for most of our existence communication was not verbal.

    If we want to have an effective example of this nasty, annoying virtual communication, we just have to call a company, especially government companies and get digit after digit, for an area and in that area we have to choose another digit, all done by a machine.

    We almost always have to repeat it several times to get out of this labyrinth of artificial language, until we find a human being at the end of this tangle and we make a great effort to keep educated in conversation after this digital marathon.

    Employers say that this is modernity, but in reality this is more than putting people to talk to robots, which is a way to save money on employee wages.

    The machines do not get sick, they do not lack service, they do not complain, they do not strike, they do not ask for salary increases, they do not get angry when we curse them, etc.

    And in the end we do not even see the face of the talking machine! Even though you already have this kind of machine!

    This is very sad, it seems that in this type of communication we are regressing.
    A warm hug, to warm, because here in São Paulo is a very unpleasant cold.

    Meu caro Amigo Dr. Nick Morgan, é um repetido prazer ler seus artigos!
    Eu concordo plenamente com a sua posição sobre esse problema de comunicação virtual.
    Faz parte da natureza humana comunicar-se cara-a-cara com pessoa e não com equipamentos. Isso até tem uma explicação pré-histórica; os homens das cavernas não escreviam eles só deixaram alguns desenhos muito simples nas paredes das cavernas, os chamados desenhos rupestres.

    E consequentemente, a sua comunicação precisava ser feita cara-a-cara. Essa nossa habilidade de falar, atua junto com a nossa linguagem corporal dando apoio ao que falamos e tendo essa linguagem um papel muito importante, pois uns 70 a 80% da nossa efetiva comunicação é corporal

    A linguagem humana é uma das mais novas habilidades, sendo o olfato mais antiga.
    A árvore evolutiva da linhagem humana, surgiu há 7 milhões anos, sendo o Homo sapiens atual, apareceu há uns 200.000 anos. Acredita-se que o homem tenha começado a falar – ou começado a tentar falar – cerca de 60 mil anos antes da Era Cristã. Isso vem demonstrar que a maior parte da nossa existência a comunicação não era verbal.

    Se nós quisermos ter um efetivo exemplo da dessa comunicação virtual desagradável, irritante, basta nós ligarmos para uma empresa, especialmente as empresas governamentais e ficar selecionado dígitos após dígitos, para uma área e nessa área a gente tem que escolher outro dígito, tudo isso feito por uma máquina.

    Quase sempre nós temos que repetir várias vezes para sair desse labirinto de linguagem artificial, até achar um ser humano na ponta desse emaranhado e nós fazermos um grande esforço para se manter educado na conversa depois dessa maratona digital.

    As empresas dizem que isso é modernidade, mas na realidade isso nada mais é do que colocar as pessoas para falar com robôs,que é uma forma economizar com salários de funcionários.

    As máquinas não ficam doentes, não faltam ao serviço, não reclamam, não fazem greve, não pedem aumento de salário, não se irritam quando a xingamos etc.

    E no final nós nem vemos a cara das máquina falantes! Apesar que até já tem esse tipo de máquina!
    Isso é muito triste, parece que nesse tipo de comunicação estamos regredindo. Um caloroso abraço, pra esquentar, pois aqui em São Paulo está um frio muito desagradável

    1. Dear Elazier — thanks for the heartfelt message from Sao Paulo! I hope things warm up there soon, and in the meantime, keep fighting the good fight for real human communications.

  2. Thanks for this post. It also made me think that when you have a multi-person conference call, there’s already the assumption that the folks on the call will be multi-tasking and will not be fully engaged. Maybe it’s “out of sight, out of mind,” or perhaps not everyone on the call is essential but were invited to it anyway, or something else. Or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s possible to be online receiving email, etc., while participating in the call. Regardless, it’s easier to be less than fully invested when engaging in this type of communication.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dave. You raise an interesting point — what are the expectations for a conference call? If they get low enough, why even have them?

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