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.