“Face Value” by Sara Eckels  confirms my teaching that no other form of communication can compete with face-to-face conversation. Video conferencing, as real as it seems, lacks subtle aspects of in-person talk we aren’t consciously aware of.
Now, I imagine some of you are thinking, Hey, Margaret, didn’t you just proudly announce your new distance learning? Why offer second best?
Answer: Because, at present, second best, in terms of communication quality, rises into first place when COVID 19 safety is factored in.
Science Behind the Benefits
The PT article explains why virtual just ain’t the same. Eckels writes, “No matter how sophisticated our algorithms, they’ll never match the intricately fine-tuned communication system in our bodies and brains” :
- When meeting in person, people’s heart rates synchronize. They unconsciously mirror others’ facial expressions, gestures and postures.
- The autonomic nervous system constantly surveys for danger. This helps us sense whether or not to trust people.
- Tiny fluctuations in facial muscles provide clues to the autonomic nervous system’s surveillance, but they can’t be seen on screen.
The hormone oxytocin triggers a feeling of well-being and bonds us to others. We secrete oxytocin in response to human touch. Oxytocin bonds parents to newborn babies (despite their aggravating cries and the fact that they usually look like ET). This hormone can cause a couple who just met, and who intend to have only a weekend fling, want to continue seeing each other after that weekend.
But we don’t even have to touch another person to produce oxytocin. When the autonomic nervous system tells us it’s okay to relax, we mirror one another’s loosened muscles, breathing and heart rates, etc. We connect.
We Started Social Distancing Long before COVID 19…
… and we did it voluntarily.
Triggered by advances in technology, humans have retreated from quality conversations. Many now use text messages as their default communication method.
My biggest pet peeve is social media. Not only is it not in-person, and written rather than spoken, but it triggers a false sense of anonymity that squelches inhibitions and courtesy. People write things they would never say aloud.
When we don’t use our subconscious abilities and our social skills, they atrophy. Then we can’t communicate as well when we do see people in person.
We Can Turn this to our Advantage
Eckels’ article offers reason for hope: “Prior to the crisis, we were voluntarily forgoing many of these benefits as we retreated into our digital lives. Now that we’ve been forced to deal with social isolation, it’s a good time to reconsider the advantages of face-to-face communication… with the hope of improving human interaction during the pandemic and Beyond.”
Eckels’ predicted reassessment of of in-person communication might resemble this:
When I’m wrapped up in my work, I eat lazily. Instead of taking time to cook something tasty, I might simply boil some rice, dump in a can of chicken, a little salt and pepper, gobble it down, and get right back to work. Or I settle for a TV dinner or ho-hum fast-food.
But let bad weather knock out the electricity, force me to exist on unrefrigerated juice packs, unheated canned vegetables, tuna, peanut butter and crackers, and the first thing I want to do when the power comes back is cook the sort of food I normally reserve for company.
Perhaps after being almost starved for human contact during this pandemic, even the most heavily addicted text messagers will place new value on real conversations.
We Can Help Ourselves Right Now
In the meantime, I offer some ways to address our need for human interaction, while still social distancing.
Value quality over instant gratification. When you’re out, do you text your family about each place you stopped, each person you met? If you answered “yes,” consider: Does your family actually need to know all about your day immediately? What’s the worst that could happen if you wait til you get home?
Swear off non-urgent texts for one week. I predict you’ll enjoy your family’s and friends’ company more and get more into what’s going on with one another. In other words, when you can’t see some people at all, connect more meaningfully with those you can see.
A good way to enhance a conversation is to paraphrase what the other person said and ask a follow-up question. For example:
Your child tells you: “In Virtual English class, we wrote a story together.”
You: “You mean you each wrote a few sentences and then put them all together?”
Child: “Yes. But we didn’t all work separately. One would write a sentence, and the next would write a sentence that built on the first sentence, and on like that.”
You: “That sounds really interesting. What sentences did you contribute?”
As for someone you can’t see in person, say a friend with whom you’d like to catch up, don’t email on autopilot. Phone, or better, connect on FaceTime. Sara Eckels agrees that, when we can’t connect in person, video is the next best.
Make the most of video conferencing. Try to use a computer, rather than a phone or tablet. Expand the window to full screen. Prop the screen up to the same level as your face. You and your friend will feel more as if you were speaking in person. (And you won’t look like a lantern-jawed pin-head.)
We can produce oxytocin without even being in another’s presence. When you remove your hands from the keyboard to massage your shoulders, when you stroke your chin while thinking, you simultaneously soothe yourself. You can consciously do more of this. Rub your hands together occasionally. Massage other muscles than the ones that hurt. Do you use skin moisturizer? Instead of just smearing it on, rub it in. Or just stroke your arm while watching TV.
We Can Get Through This
One way we do that is to have the best quality interactions we can at present. Then, keep that quality going and growing after the pandemic improves.
1 Psychology Today, June 2020