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Virtual communication can be tricky. What happens when every part of your life depends on it?

Juggling communication among work, school, and personal lives can get hazy when you’re confined to one location: your home.

Virtual communication can be tricky. What happens when every part of your life depends on it?
[Photo: Michael Soledad/Unsplash]

An advertising executive presents a marketing plan via Zoom to her boss and colleagues, hoping her kids are still watching Frozen on Netflix. A couple argues over bandwidth requirements for their dueling videoconferences, while their teenager searches for protective gloves on Amazon.

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This is the new normal—virtual communication, 24 hours a day—for who knows how long during the COVID-19 crisis. Work is at home. School is at home. Date night is at home. Even healthcare may be confined to the home. We are all attempting to accommodate our emotional, entertainment, educational, and health needs in one virtual place. Excuse the bad pun, but this feels virtually impossible.

What is happening now is unprecedented. Communication researchers call the practice of engaging in multiple conversations simultaneously “multicommunication.” Even before the pandemic, the practice of multicommunicating had profoundly changed how we are socially present, but this is likely to further change with the current crisis.

Our social presence describes the degree to which we perceive the presence of another person. An important type of social presence, often required when simultaneously engaging in multiple conversations, is “budgeted presence.” With budgeted presence, we allocate part of our social presence to one person and the other part to another, during the same conversation. Just as we allocate funds in our budget based on spending priorities, we allocate our social presence based on our goals for communicating during any one moment.

An alternative to budgeting our social presence, which will become important as we all deal with the societal shift to virtual living, is to recognize the importance of not managing multiple conversations at the same time, and instead make thoughtful decisions about engaging in one conversation at a time to deepen our relationships. The dramatic change in our family and home lives today, where each aspect of a family member’s life collides within the walls of the family home, creates a situation where people’s budgeted presence is severely overtaxed. Multitasking is difficult; multicommunicating is even harder.

Unrealistic expectations about our ability to completely move our professional and personal lives into the communal home have created extreme stress for families. Sociologist Erving Goffman coined the terms “front stage and backstage” to describe how communicators present themselves. Using the metaphor of the stage, he describes how communicators make decisions about the formal and controlled behaviors that they save solely for the “front stage,” versus the informal, less controlled behaviors that communicators save for their “backstage” activities. Zoom and other virtual videoconferencing platforms have blended front stage and backstage in unprecedented ways.

This change happened with little opportunity for us to plan or organize. Being thoughtful about our social presence in the coming weeks and likely months will be more important than ever.

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What can we do to manage the way we address our social presence as we adjust to a more virtual world? Here are four tips to help you navigate this new environment.

Set expectations

 Share our needs and expectations for our ability to spend time with one another, and discuss competing needs from work, school, or other outside commitments. Establish an overarching idea of what each member of your household will need, in terms of time and resources.

Avoid becoming too comfortable

 Recognize that trying to allocate part of our social presence to our jobs, for those of us who can continue to telework, and another part to family members during business hours is stressful and difficult and ultimately not effective over extended periods of time.

Maintain your focus

 Realize that engaging in multiple conversations simultaneously can be efficient but can leave everyone feeling unsupported. Focusing on only one conversation at a time can lead to more satisfying communication relationships.

Communicate individual needs

Families will need to create explicit household rules that enable times for focusing on things one by one. Set specific times for work or school activities, and other times that are solely devoted to family, but realize that you may not be able realistically to work in the same concentrated periods of time you used to. Contact your boss or teacher so expectations for work and homework delivery are realistic. Anxiety will likely mount as we continue to deal with the uncertainties of this virus, and we continue to manage working, parenting, and maintaining our home, and we have no idea how long this will go on.

As we continue to face the challenges ahead, we need to care for one another and ourselves. Thoughtfully considering how we interact with one another can help us get through this difficult period.

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Jeanine Turner is an associate professor in the Communication, Culture, and Technology master’s program at Georgetown University, and she holds an affiliate professor appointment at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. She is the author of more than 50 articles and book chapters. Jeanine has worked on communication strategies with the World Bank, Verizon, KPMG, and the Pentagon, among others.

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