The world is facing an unprecedented challenge regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. Some countries have imposed lockdown measures and many people have to stay at home for weeks, if not months. This changed the way people communicate. Negotiations, interviews, and meetings are now taking place virtually or by phone. Even if some people are allowed to meet in person, wearing face masks remains compulsory as a means to prevent the spread of coronavirus and it is creating a new mode of communication altogether.
In-person to digital communication
Sara Eckel of Psychology Today shared that our ability to connect digitally rescued many people’s sanity and also saved lives. But it is during this time that we also learned how much we miss people when we cannot see them face to face. We are reminded of how easy misunderstandings could arise when officemates are not in the same room working and how lonely it is not to hug a friend. Neuroscientists have long known this. That no matter how sophisticated the technology is, it can never match the fine-tuned communication system in our brains and bodies.
Mirroring each other’s gestures
The University of California, Berkeley’s Science Director of the Greater Good Science Center Emiliana Simon-Thomas said that when we are in the presence of another individual, our bodies are also starting to attune to the body of that other person. We begin to mirror the facial expressions and gestures of the other person, our voices are taking on the same register, and our heart rates also synchronize. It allows us to better understand each other the moment our physiological states align.
She said that before the pandemic, we were already forgoing many of the benefits that in-person communication provides as we have relied on our digital lives. On average, we spend 144 minutes or two hours and 24 minutes on social media every day. In some places in the world, people spend far more time on social. In South America, people spend an average of 3 hours and 24 minutes daily on social media while in Africa 3 hours and 10 minutes.
Simon-Thomas believes that now that we are forced to take part in social isolation, it would be a good time to rethink the benefits of face-to-face communication as well as quantify the things that we may be missing during the pandemic. Doing so will help improve human interaction, not just in this pandemic but beyond.
Neuroception: detecting if someone is a friend or foe
Neuroscientist Stephen Porges, known for revolutionizing the understanding of autonomic physiology, has previously likened the human body to a polygraph machine, which is used as a lie detector test. He said that our autonomic nervous system checks our surroundings to make sure that we are out of danger. Without even consciously knowing about it, our body picks up the nonverbal cues that can tell whether the person we are talking about is a friend or foe. Our respiration, perspiration, or heart rate send the signal through the neuroception process.
When the body senses danger, the sympathetic nervous system will then send us into the fight or flight mode. However, when the body realizes that it is safe, our mind will begin to think “Oh, that’s just my friend” as the parasympathetic nervous system will then drop the body's defenses. This whole process is involuntary.
We will only begin to mirror each other or synchronize the moment we realize that there is no threat from the person we are talking to. Many of us, though, are now denied interpersonal contact and we risk losing such ability out of sheer lack of practice.
The digital dilemma
California State University’s English professor Noreen Lace fully supported digital learning in the wake of the pandemic but she also recognized that it was harder to connect. She said that her students are not always getting her tone during an online class although she can come across as “very strong” in a face-to-face class. She teaches a live class but her students would post or email her isolated questions. Eckel believes that the whole point of such difficulty is time lag.
The National Center for Education Statistics of the United States shares that there are about 2.2 million students who attended college exclusively online in 2016. The number of students who took at least some courses online in the US grew by 5.7% year-over-year. Meanwhile, EducationData.org shares the following reasons for online learning choices by students: existing commitments do not allow for attendance in campus-based courses (47%), online learning was the only way to pursue the field of interest (21%), employer incentive or a partnership (21%), reputation or a specific school (8%), and other (4%).
However, as Covid-19 impacts education, the top immediate concerns of college and university presidents in the US now are the students’ mental health (92%), employees’ mental health (88%), short-term financial costs -unbudgeted (87%), accelerated rates of student attrition (85%), accessibility to online learning platforms/ tools (76%), faculty readiness for online learning (75%), and technological readiness for online learning (57%).
Out of touch
Another difference between in-person and digital communication is the quality of conversation. Meeting a good friend for dinner, for instance, will allow you to reveal each other in a deeper way than digitally. According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Melissa Hunt, true intimacy will grow when people are sharing not only about the good things in their lives but also of things that they don’t feel good about. The other person can respond empathetically and this could be a bid for intimacy.
Face-to-face communication also boosts efficiency and is more important for people dealing with clients. With the ability to socialize and interact, it sets the foundation for trust and eventually leads to a better working relationship. Take, for instance, Baji Grace, who runs personal-growth workshops and business in locales like Italy and Bali. Despite the high cost of international travel, she believes that an initial in-person meeting is important to protect the relationship in case an online turmoil will later happen.
Studies also show that 93% of communication is nonverbal. When meeting in-person, we can observe the facial expressions, gestures, and posture of the other person. Yet, the shift to digital communication has made it a challenge to read nonverbal clues.
The social element of face to face communication may be applied online but it cannot fully replace the power of being physically present.