The first of two posts adapted from my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me?
Recent studies show that on a typical conference call, over 60 percent of the supposed participants are doing email, other work, going to the bathroom, shopping, or exercising or eating—or even taking another call.
And a huge swathe of the workforce is communicating this way. Over 80 percent of teams and 90 percent of projects have at least one team member not physically in the same location as the other workers. The number of workers who work from home at least one day a week has increased by 79 percent from 2005 to 2012.
The unintended consequence of all this virtual connection is an epidemic of emotional isolation. In the interests of efficiency, we’ve adopted a system of digital communication that is deeply unsatisfying for us humans, because it doesn’t allow us to gather and exchange the information that we want in the way that we’re used to.
But even more important, our digital communication prevents us from connecting emotionally with our fellow humans. That unconscious emotional connection is a key aspect of our human information gathering and sharing system. Indeed, it’s hardwired in us. Without it, the information is far poorer, far less generous, and far more often misunderstood.
So why is emotional connection so important to communications? Why do virtual communications almost completely eliminate it, leading to all the bad behavior we see in the virtual world? And what other problems does online communication cause in the human exchange of information?
As an acting student, I had the privilege of witnessing a then-well-known Broadway actor demonstrate his facility with emotions. Actors think of themselves as expert in emotions; it’s their job to be able to conjure up emotions with ease. The subject had turned to that gold standard of acting emotions, the crying scene. We students were nervously admitting that we found it hard to cry on command, for a particular scene or situation. We wondered if we would be up to it when the need came along. The actor didn’t say anything in response. He simply turned his back for a few moments and then turned around again—with tears streaming down his face.
It was a showy way of making his point. He wanted us to see that he had a wide range of emotions ready at a moment’s notice, and he wanted us to understand that it was our job to prepare the same set of emotions for instant recall.
He produced that emotion from one of the two sources of connection that humans possess. The first, but less powerful source, is our imagination—his method, in fact. He conjured up in his mind a memory of grief—a moment when he had been sad—and let the tears flow accordingly.
For years, researchers thought that imagination was the primary source of human emotional connection. Because we have experienced moments of joy, sorrow, excitement, and sadness, when we see one of those emotions in someone else, we compare, in effect, our memory of the emotion with what we’re seeing, match it up, and react accordingly. Human connection, under this theory, is essentially a memory-retrieval exercise.
But the second and more powerful source of emotional connection is the more direct one. It turns out that emotional connection is how we’re hardwired as humans. And removing that natural, easy, unconscious emotional data stream, therefore, as virtual communication does, is particularly crippling.