Facing Up To Face-To-Face, Part 2

Back in December when I first started blogging for Fast Company, I posted an entry on the topic of face-to-face communication and its benefits and advantages (in many cases) over email, txt and IM. Since then, I've noticed some more references to the issue.

One, a New York Times article by Daniel Goleman, a former Times columnist and author of the books "Emotional Intelligence" and the current bestseller, "Social Intelligence," is quite fascinating. Goleman discusses a developing concern among professionals in both the business and psychological realms that the growing preference to communicate electronically has lowered people's inhibitions and not in a good way.

Apparently, when we are communicating by these means, without the benefit of the nonverbal cues afforded by face-to-face communication, we are more likely to flame or "[express thoughts] while sitting alone at the keyboard that would be put more diplomatically — or go unmentioned — face to face." In fact, according to Goleman, there is a technical name for this type of behavior: online disinhibition effect and refers to how we behave with less retraint in cyberspace.

I began to notice and write about this phenomenon a couple of years ago. I noticed it with my kids, who seemed able to be very frank with friends and others in their IM networks. At first, I admired that they could and would say what they really felt. I thought it was refreshing. As a regular cheerleader for authenticity, I could not imagine how this could be a bad thing -- until one of them broke up with a boyfriend online. That was my wake-up call. For the important stuff (and I'm not saying that two 16-year-olds breaking up is that important, but it is practice for the future), face-to-face has tremendous advantages. Goleman writes:

"In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track."

And empathy is key. In my speeches, I identify it as one of three critical communication skills (the other two are apology and courtesy). When we are alone, typing, there is an absence of information that we naturally respond to when we are in another's presence. We hit send before we think better of it. This creates problems. I see it with my clients all the time and I experienced it myself in a recent email exchange with a person who was ticking me off (see my FC blog entry on that topic here).

The other mention about the impact of face-to-face was also in the New York Times. This article discussed the importance of geography for conducting certain types of business, particularly the technology business. If, for example, you want to develop the next, great technological innovation, you would do best to either live in or around Silicon Valley or the Route 128 corridor near Boston. (Tip: Silicon Valley is the better bet, so far.) According to the article:

" 'Face-to-face is still very important for exchange of ideas, and nowhere is this exchange more valuable than in Silicon Valley,' says Paul M. Romer, a professor in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford who is known for studying the economics of ideas."

I have always thought that meeting people in person was the best way to build a relationship, sustain one and, certainly, fix one that may be broken. In my last post on the topic, I was having second thoughts about having taken such a hard line. I was trying to keep an open mind. But as the great publisher Arther Ochs Sulzberger (okay, okay, of The New York Times) said, "I believe in having an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out."

So I'm taking a stand and drawing a line in the sand. Written communication will never take the place of face-to-face. Nope, never.

Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates, LLC • Greenwich, CT • ruth@ruthsherman.comwww.ruthsherman.com

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