Call me old-fashioned but I see a disturbing trend emerging in our society and in the business world: In the past few years, as we have become more and more reliant on technology, our face-to-face communication has diminished and suffered. It has been proven over and over that face-to-face communication is more effective than email, texting, phone calls or videoconferencing. The conflict lies in the fact that though face-to-face communication is the most powerful form of human interaction, technology has become an efficient and effective communication enabler - and is competing head-on with face-to-face at a rapid pace, whether we like it or not.
To that point, we are obviously not going to put down our devices and swear off technology altogether, but the fact remains that there is no substitute for face-to-face contact and we should not gloss over that reality. What is often missed when discussing this subject is the importance of body language when people are together in person. Studies show that only 7% of communication is transmitted via the written or verbal word, meaning that an astounding 93% is attributed to nonverbal body language. It is only when we are face-to-face that we can interpret instantly the tone of a voice or look into someone’s eyes to deduce whether “it’s all good” really means all is actually good or whether it’s a suspicious statement. In person, we have a number of cues available in addition to the words themselves - facial expressions, gestures, body language, and voice tone - that complement the words and the message.
But when communicating online, we lose that ability to accurately assess the other person’s receptiveness and emotional response to the dialogue. And this presents an unprecedented paradox: With all the powerful social technologies at our fingertips, we are more connected – and yet potentially more disconnected – than ever before.
Every relevant metric that I have seen indicates that we are interacting at breakneck speed and frequency through social media. But at what cost? Is communication now about rapid responses in lieu of thoughtful, measured exchanges? Are we really communicating? With 93% of the communication context removed, we are attempting to build relationships and draw conclusions based on short phrases, abbreviations and emojis - which may or may not accurately represent the sender’s message. And to make it worse, social media and technology have blurred the traditional barriers of space and time, creating a 24/7 world that poses a threat to the time-honored boundaries between our work life and personal life.
Ironically, social media is actually making us less social – and has become a substitute for the real thing. In the business world and in our industry, the use of electronic communication has overtaken face-to-face (and voice-to-voice) communication by a large margin. This major shift has occurred because of two major factors: the global economy - which demands speedy information flow, and the changing demographic in our employee population - namely the Gen Y and Millennial generations who now make up a rapidly growing segment of the workforce. These generations have demonstrated a lack of comfort with traditional interpersonal communication and prefer to use instant messaging or other social media rather than stop by someone’s office for a talk. This new communication preference is forcing employers to adapt in order to manage to a new set of expectations in their younger employees, and vice versa. But a bigger concern is raised in the process: the loss of social skills and the ability to speak clearly and articulately, and look someone in the eye without being uneasy.
The other issue is because most business communication is now done via e-mails, texts, instant messaging, intranets, blogs, websites and other technology-enabled media - without the benefit of body language – the potential for misunderstanding increases. In our high-stress, constantly rushed state of mind, we don’t always take the time to read and re-read each communication before hitting “send” and the subtle nuances of the message may be misinterpreted. Conflicts can emerge over the tone (or brevity) of an e-mail, or who was included or left off the all-important cc: list. When a text is written in all capital letters, does that mean they’re shouting? Are one or two-word responses a sign that the person is upset or doesn’t want to engage? We are left to guess what the sender means and in many cases conclusions are drawn based on very little information.
Not only has this created a serious dilemma in the workplace, but more importantly, it has also seeped into our personal lives with alarming impact. We have all probably sent an email on our smartphone, checked Facebook, sent a text, or talked on the phone while in the presence of family members. Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid the constant connectivity that life in this century demands. But is this need to connect affecting our connection to the very people we love the most?
Studies have shown that children, in particular, feel that parents pay less attention to them than to their smartphones (and, admittedly, vice versa) - especially at mealtime, in the car, or while attending events. I contend that none of us want to create a chasm in our family relationships, so we must make a conscious effort to modify our behavior. It may be hard to break the habit, but resisting the temptation to grab that device every 5 minutes while in the presence of loved ones, and spend more genuine face-to-face time with them without distraction or interruptions, is not a bad idea.
Simply stated, in order to “save face-to-face” we all have to do our part by making adjustments in our daily on-line conduct, and by encouraging as much face-to-face interaction as possible with all the people in our lives – both professional and personal.