This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me?, to be published by Harvard in October.
Recently, I was introduced to a potential business connection by a mutual friend, and we decided to connect on Skype for an initial chat. I had entered the information incorrectly into my calendar, so it was a bit late by the time I got everything straightened out and we connected. I was frazzled by the experience, and on top of my distractions, the Skype connection was unusually poor; it kept winking in and out.
I could see—and sense viscerally—that my potential connection was giving up. Here was this late, frazzled, technologically incompetent person. Why bother? I wanted to say, “The impression you’re getting—that’s not me! I’m usually cool, I’m technologically competent, and I’m nearly always on time. A completely different person!”
The connection did not thrive, and no business resulted. In person, I could have rushed in, obviously sweating and harried, and explained it away with an excuse that would at least have been human. And we might have survived the experience. My personal presence might have compensated for my tardiness.
Here’s the problem: online relationships must begin well, or they won’t go at all. Online, there is no second chance. As the old saw has it, if I do something stupid, it’s because I’m having a bad day. If you do something stupid, it’s because of a character flaw. That’s desperately true online.
Openness is incredibly important in getting relationships off to a good start. And openness that works with humans is all about sending welcoming signals with your face, torso, hands, and body, without overdoing it or crowding the personal space of the other person too much. How do you do that online?
You can’t. An unintended consequence of our new, amazing, super-convenient virtual world, where everything (almost everything) is a few clicks away, is that it robs us of real closeness. More than that, by spending time online, we lose out on intimacy. Facebook, your favorite airline rewards program, and even Amazon take away that real closeness as fast as they offer us faux intimacy. This world knows who our friends are! It knows the kind of seat and meal we want! It can recommend books to us that we might want to buy!
But even the thrilling sight of a new box from Amazon will never replace the crinkling around a true friend’s eyes when you tell him or her about your adventures on your last vacation—or your last trip into town. The friend who knows all the disasters that befell you on the trip before that.
All those delightful likes, wows, and loves on Facebook in the end simply make us hungry for more. The virtual world is a never-ending banquet that never completely satisfies. The loop is never closed. The internet doesn’t hug you back. The virtual world fails to deliver on a basic human need: empathy. This emotional connection between us helps glue the whole human experiment together.
And so consistency in communications is even more important in the virtual world than it is in the face-to-face world. In the physical world, when a team decides to take a difficult action—to commit to extra hours to get a project done, for example—the team leader can judge the level of resistance by noting the body language around the table. The leader might offer time off, say, after the project is done, to mollify the unhappy faces around the room.
But something odd happens to informed consent in the virtual world. Here, without the visual element of those unhappy faces, the team leader hears only silence, and silence implies consent. So, the likelihood that the real feelings of the team won’t get expressed rises exponentially.
It’s another form of empathy failure. The distance provided by a virtual connection creates conditions where people are much more likely to behave badly to one another and are much less likely to be sympathetic to others’ feelings. There’s a lack of empathy.
Whether it’s a new connection, or an ongoing one with your team, the frailty of the online connection demands new behavior from us. We can’t just use our usual communication styles online and expect them to work in the same way.