I’ve been posting recently about the perils of our life today, living as we do half-face-to-face, half virtually, adapting the posts from my new book, Can You Hear Me?.  Perhaps, though, you’re not convinced.  You’re thinking to yourself, “Sure, virtual communication is sometimes a pain in the *ss, like when a call keeps dropping or you only get every third word that a colleague is saying on the conference call.  But that’s just technological limitation, not a deep underlying problem.  And it will get better as the tech improves, right?”

Well, not really.  Yes, the technology is imperfect, and that can lead to dropped calls, inefficient video conference experiences, and so on, and that’s irritating and inefficient.  But the problems with virtual communications go deeper than that.  For example, a recent study found that regular face-to-face communication cuts the risk of depression in adults by half. Phone, video and email don’t have the same effect.  If it were as simple as improving bandwidth, the differences would not be so stark.

What’s going on?  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. The technology deprives us of something surprisingly important:  emotional subtext.

We need to feed the unconscious, and we starve it at our peril as employers, as employees, and as humans. The virtual world is boring for our unconscious minds. We need face-to-face.

I often work with people to help them decide on the persona they want to put across in their conversations, meetings, and presentations, and we struggle to talk about what we mean by the concept of a persona. When I ask people how they would like to be perceived, they use terms like authoritative, funny, expert, approachable, confident, and humble. The list goes on, but I’m always struck by how impoverished our language is to talk about this very important business of how others take us.

Mostly, people list positive adjectives—but who would list negative ones?—and then we discuss what their behavior is likely to inspire now, what the gap is, and how to get to the desired state. How to be more empathetic, or confident, or authoritative, or funny, or expert for an audience.

It’s tricky work.  Take empathy, for example.  That’s widely considered to be a positive attribute, and people who convey the warmth of an empathetic person are more successful in many fields.  But how do you appear to be more empathetic? What does that mean, exactly? And can you do it at all online?

Presumably, the word empathy suggests sensitivity to the feelings of others.  But how do you project that quality from a stage? Or across a room? Is it a tilt of the head, a hand gesture, a posture, or something you say? And is everyone struck the same way by your attempts at appearing more empathetic?

In person, we can be empathetic automatically, because of our mirror neuron system. Online, the mirror neuron system can’t work as well. So, what happens?  A recent study found that you can increase people’s empathy—specifically for others’ suffering—by having them touch rough sandpaper. That little bit of discomfort makes us more aware of discomfort in general and thus more sensitive to others’ potential discomfort.

It’s a fascinating study, and it shows us how little we understand about a feeling like empathy and what drives it. If a momentary encounter with sandpaper can make people measurably more empathetic, how is that feeling generated to begin with? And more importantly, how driven is it by our physicality rather than what we normally think of as our psychology?

Now apply that insight to the virtual world. If most of our humanity is driven, as it seems to be, by literal metaphors from the real world, how can we expect to thrive in the virtual? It’s not just sandpaper. If you give us a hot cup of coffee to hold, we form warmer opinions of brief images of people we see online. Holding something cold has the opposite effect. There are many such examples. Our brains are hardwired for real sensory data, not ersatz. And given that we can increase people’s empathy with applications to the physical senses, what implications does that have for manipulating people’s perceptions of empathy online?

I’ll conclude in a second post this week. 


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