Readers of this blog will know that I’ve been saying for several years that we’re living in an angry era, but that zeitgeists do change, and that a happier time is on the way.  At least, that’s what I hope.  Each year I’ve suggested that perhaps this is the year. 

Well, I’m sorry to join the ranks of the doomsayers, but I no longer think that this year (or any year for at least the next several) will witness the beginning of a happier era.  And that’s because of what I learned researching for my latest book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, which was published by Harvard in October 2018. 

I began the researching hypothesizing that we were now in a hybrid world – half virtual, half still face-to-face.  I focused mainly on the business world, but the same is largely true of our personal lives as well.  And I asked the question, how does that change our experience of communicating with one another? 

The answers were disturbing.  In the virtual world, the most immediate result of our texting, emailing, audio conferencing and even video conferencing is that the normal huge swathe of information about the people we’re communicating with in a face-to-face discussion is greatly reduced.  We go, to put it in virtual terms, from broadband to dialup.  

Face-to-face we get nods, winks, widening of the eyes, smiles, frowns, hand gestures, body motion toward and away – the list goes on and on.  From all of those meaningful human twitching we construct a picture of what the other person is feeling, thinking, and reacting – their human intent. 

And that’s what we care about more than anything:  what is the intent of the other person or people we’re communicating with?  Are they ‘friending’ me or the opposite?  Do they agree or disagree?  Are they more powerful than me and going to help me, or more powerful and a threat?  The questions of intent go on and on.

Virtually, most of that information is either cut out completely or severely curtailed.  Even in video conferencing, it turns out rather unexpectedly, because our brains have a hard time relating to a two-dimensional version of the other person. 

So we’re deprived of that usually clear picture of what the other humans around us are thinking.  What do we do as a result?  Here’s where it gets interesting.  Because, in evolutionary terms, it pays to be anxious and assume the worst, that’s what we do.  If you get an email or text from your boss, saying, Please come and see me asap, who among us assumes that it’s good news?  No one ever. 

We fill up the gap in intent data with negative guesses. 

So that’s the nature of the world we’re living in now.  Because we communicate so much virtually, we are getting less information about intent.  And so we assume that the intent is negative. 

Welcome to the angry era.  Now, of course there are many factors that contribute to the tone of an era, but it’s striking to me that the world has turned so dark precisely in the decade of the widespread adoption of mobile virtual communication. 

And yes, that does mean that Facebook and Twitter, but also Apple and Google and all the rest have a lot to answer for.  I’m no luddite, but I do believe that we have to learn a new language if we’re going to continue to exist in a half-virtual, half-face-to-face world.  We need to learn the language of intent.  We need to begin proactively to add our intent with unmistakable clarity to our communications.  We need to do this in texts, in emails, in audio conferences, and in video conferencing.  The other person is going to assume that you are angry, unhappy, dissatisfied, upset, and so on, unless you tell them otherwise. 

We need to learn to communicate in a new way in the digital era.  Or else we shall surely go down fighting, cursing each other in the dark.  We can do better.  We must do better.  We need to begin today. 

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8 Comments

  1. I have been following your blog now and you are spot on. I am an educator in the world of cleaning and without people, we have no business. I have developed what I call, “Virtual Hands-on Classes”. This is where I as an accredited teacher can do the instructional part for the operation or distributor of goods and during the class, we take breaks to allow the students to get local, hands-on training of what I instructed.
    This is the blend you talk about. The clients, both the local distribution and the students are loving it!

    1. Thanks, David — that mix of hands-on and virtual is the ideal way to make virtual connection work. Glad you’ve figured it out and it’s working for you.

  2. Thank you Dr. Morgan. I concur with your observation regarding digital communications. Going back 20 years, to the early use of email, I can recall hundreds of conflicts that were uselessly created by the problem of not understanding anothers intentions.

    I was dumbstruck by your simple observation “what we care about more than anything: what is the intent of the other person or people we’re communicating with?” I literally never had that thought before.

    It is now much clearer to me that in ALL communications I should be aware of my intent, and I should work at making sure that intent is clear. When I fail to do that I leave it to the listener’s imagination, and since I don’t know their lives, their stresses, their backgrounds, their situation it is impossible for me to know how they will interpret my communications. Or, worse, I have assumed I know them so well that I need not be concerned with how they will interpret my communications (and assumptions are the root of so many bad outcomes!)

    Now that I realize this observation I can take far greater responsibility for the outcome of my communications. I have responsibility to make sure I communicate my intent. Wow, I have taken so much for granted so often in my past communications – I have had such high expectations for the other person!!

    Thank you.

    1. Adam — great to hear from you and delighted that you found the point about intent powerful. I can make the second edition of Can You Hear Me? much shorter:-)

  3. Excellent post, Nick. I believe with our 21st century virtual worlds, we are forced to “read between the lines.” I agree with you – there is much nonverbal-rich communication found in live events that can’t be replicated electronically. For me, that is one of the biggest draws of conferences – the hugs, handshakes, smiles, and intrinsic trust built into face-to-face time over meetings and meals. I find video calls to be a good intermediate step in between a 2-dimensional email and a live meeting.

    1. Thanks, Lynn — I love the phrase “2-dimensional email” and agree wholeheartedly about the difference between that and a live meeting.

  4. Hi Nick, thank you for sharing awareness about communication in the complex world. Aim for connection :).
    First of all in the complex world we need to go down from head to heart…make use of our intuition and less in the analytic mode
    (this cannot/doesn’t serve us that much anymore).
    And on top of finding out the intent of the other person (if known ;)), are we aware of our own, intent?
    Is our intent always what we think it is? Do we really know what we want/need?
    I refer to CNVC (non conflicting communication) from Marshal Rosenburg. Very powerful tool(s) to dig deep, to find our own and others wants/needs.
    The chance we sort this out (if needed) will depend on clear communication, which is clearly the face-to-face or maybe more to say: heart to heart communication :), like you wrote.
    Extra: (understand and being understood)
    Great to find out what kind of person we have in front of us. Recognise their style…
    I refer to the code of understanding (begripscode; not translated from dutch to english yet). This tool tells us about the four styles we can recognise in others and ourselves:
    A guard style/a decision making style/connector style/inventor style.
    By using this tool we communicate with awareness and focus. Which brings connection!!!!

    Again thank you for bringing up the knowledge of 2D and 3D, in the 5 dimensional world 🙂

    1. Frances, thanks so much for your insightful and thoughtful comment. We have so much more work to do to understand each other’s intent. The work only begins when we answer basic questions of emotional reaction — in a “5D” world.

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