A couple of weeks ago, Steven Johnson, an author who blogs for The New York Times, discussed the issue of virtual communication and social connections. His jumping off point was a column by Thomas Friedman in the same newspaper that lamented the fact that due to the proliferation of technology, we don’t speak to each other as much as we used to. As a result, Friedman said, social connection is on the decline, blocked by technology, and not a good omen for the future of the world. Johnson argued that in his view, technology has made us more connected and he was less worried than Friedman about the effect on civilization.
Toward the end of his blog entry, Johnson said something that really perked up my ears: "But the Web gives us more of those opportunities, and for the most part, I think it gives us better opportunities. What it doesn’t directly provide is face-to-face connection. So the question becomes: how important is face-to-face?"
As someone who works to help business leaders and their corporations communicate better, it has long been one of my tenets, my articles of faith, that face-to-face communication is indispensable, that there is no substitute for it. But, I have to admit, as technology gains more of a toehold and occupies a larger piece of the communication space, I find it more and more difficult to take such a hard line.
In speeches that I give (face-to-face), I ask for a show of hands in answer to a series of questions. They are "How many of you find that you txt, IM or email more than you speak to someone on the phone or face-to-face?" At least half the hands always go up. The second question is "How many of you txt, IM or email when you should be speaking on the phone or face-to-face?" More than half of the hands go up. My third question is "How many of you have found that after several times of going back and forth by txt, IM or email, you pick up the phone or go see the person on the other end and solve the problem in 30 seconds?" Almost all the hands go up.
Clearly, speaking can be a more efficient way of coming to agreement or solving a problem than the methods technology provides. No matter how instantaneous we think virtual communication is, it is no match for the speed and efficiency of the spoken word. This is not unimportant in a business environment where time has become the most precious commodity. But there is another, even more important benefit: There is an emotional component to speaking that we work to expunge from writing and, let’s be clear, txt, IM and email are writing. Emotional content fosters connections and we lose the ability to connect on an emotional level when we delegate much, if not most, of our communicating to the written forms.
When we write, the meaning is contained in the words. When we speak, however, meaning is largely contained in how we say the words. Tone, expression, volume, word emphasis, even accent and dialect, contain information that gives meaning to our words. And that is only the voice! If we add hand and body movement, facial expression and eye communication, dress and adornment, there is a rich lode of information that just cannot be communicated by words alone.
An excellent example of the importance of face-to-face communication is the way in which politicians conduct campaigns. I know of no one who would vote for a candidate sight unseen. It is for that reason that candidates feel compelled to use TV so ubiquitously and for the attendant and escalating costs of running a campaign. This is because we get so much more information about the person by seeing them, the more up-close-and-personal, the better. Questions such as "do I like and trust this person," are much easier to get answers to when we have had a chance to meet or at least see a candidate, than when we only hear about the candidate or get written information about him or her.
Successful business leaders are well aware of this fact. While they depend on blackberrys and the other "can’t do without" technologies, they know that if they don’t see their customers, if they don’t network with their peers or mingle with their employees, they will be at a significant disadvantage in today’s ultra-competitive marketplace.
On the other hand, virtual communication has significant benefits. For one thing, written information can be looked over and fixed before hitting that send button. This is certainly important when we compose formal documents where it is still expected that grammar and spelling be correct. It can be important, too, with the informal written forms of communication, txt, IM, and email that we use as a substitute for communicating face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice. Proper spelling and grammar are, of course, less important, but we can still sit on a missive and think before we send. Another benefit, and I think this is what Steven Johnson is talking about, is that we can keep in touch and dialogue with people who are very far away or with others who may live close by, but with whom we would not ordinarily meet face-to-face. There is no question that this ability to communicate instantly with others all over our planet has been a tremendous boon to business. Does this foster social connections? Well, yes, it does, if you call brief back and forth written messages a social connection.
To me, however, and I think to most people, if they think it through, being connected socially is much more about thinking and feeling than content. A face-to-face or even a phone conversation often has some dead air, moments when two—or more people—just sit there, without speaking, but thinking and feeling instead, so that the next words are at least likely to be more thoughtful if not imbued with some emotion. "Do I like you?" That is a question that can only be answered by ongoing face-to-face communication. And not only do we vote for people we like, but we do much more business with them than with those we don’t.
So, to answer Steven Johnson’s question, "How important is face-to-face," I think the answer is that despite the onslaught of technology and pressure to use alternative methods for everyday communication, it’s still very important, that is, if you want to do really well in business.