Since early this year, the world has collectively experienced an extraordinary transition. Nothing new to humankind, but new for many. We had to adjust to new rules and regulations about how we interact with others. We had to worry about friends and relatives, about our livelihoods and financial situations, about many a thing, often alone. New challenges have been thrown our way, changing the way we move, work and socialise. As mentioned, we have had similar and much worse times during the Spanish flu for example, however, given our seemingly short memory, we have all but forgotten the past and are overwhelmed with the present. This year, many, nay, most people have been affected if not infected with COVID-19, a virus making itself comfortable in near all areas of the world, moving with and within us.
One of the biggest transitions for many of us has been adjusting to this new normal, including getting used to minimum social contact and increased (if not solely) working remotely from home. I myself have worked from home for quite a while now. I have spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours in online calls and meetings, have been to online conferences, workshops and lectures, have conducted online oral exams and remote thesis supervision. Along with the digitalisation of many work processes, online collaboration tools seem to have shot out of the ground like mushrooms in a moist forest, all the while competing for their place in this new normal. Many of us have quickly adapted to this new form of work and have realised the great advantages. I can work in “Zürich”, quickly jump over to a lunch talk in “London” and move on to a brainstorming meeting in “Montreal”. Presenters do not have to be flown in for a one hour presentation, thus opening up new possibilities for international and interdisciplinary collaborations and learning.
However, people seem to feel lonely, people yearn for physical meetings and exchange. People seem to like complaining about “having no social contact anymore”. Let me take this apart and maybe give some food for thought, some nuggets of my opinion. I believe the feeling of having no social contact should be attributed to our mindset and not be seen as an unavoidable consequence of the pandemic. I would even dare to hypothesise that social interactions are just as easily possible, it is our perception of the available opportunities that has changed. It’s not the physically being somewhere that makes something social, but rather the possibilities for social interactions a such place affords. If you think about it, what does a lecture hall actually facilitate in terms of social contact? Not much, maybe a chat in the corridor or a stolen glance during a presentation. I would argue that the possibilities for interactions are almost the same in a virtual setting, you can have a chat in groups, you can jump into a breakout room for a face to face chat or you can just message someone, anyone.
So why are people so intent of physical meetings? What makes the physical more desirable? Might it only be how we perceive the communicative setting? Could the main difference between virtual and digital merely be how we think about and approach these?
Physically Digital – Digitally Physical
I am no expert on social interactions, nor do I know much about communication science, these are solely personal observations and experiences. What are the differences between physical and virtual interactions. Well, to state the obvious: first and foremost it is physical proximity. In a physical setting, you meet someone somewhere and interact with them somehow. Physical interactions allow us to experience a spatial-temporal event in many perceptual dimensions: visual, auditory, olfactory and haptic. Not only do we see, hear, smell, feel each other, but also the setting, the physical surroundings. Physical social interactions such as chatting with each other in a Café are laden with non-verbal communication and impressions such as body language or the ambience of a place, greatly influencing how we interpret the meanings conveyed through spoken words. Physically being somewhere also opens the door for happenstance interactions, running into someone on your way to the coffee machine or walking past an office only to remember a question you wanted to ask the person inside. Another important point is where attention is focussed. During physical interactions mutual attention is necessary and deviations are quickly noticed. In other words, when talking or listening to someone, your attention is focussed on said person. Being distracted can send a variety of signals from discomfort to boredom. Hence, paying attention and interacting with interest are the backbones of functioning social interactions.
Digital interactions on the other hand strip away some of the mentioned perceptual dimensions and amplify the potential to be distracted. Due to people not having physical proximity during virtual interactions leads to a number of issues. Most people have a normal web-cam, limiting the visible area as well as depth perception. Most cameras have a fixed focal length and offer no zoom capabilities resulting in only the face and shoulders of a person being visible. Whilst allowing facial expressions to be visible, this greatly reduces the interpretation of body language. People do not use their hands to articulate or their stance to convey sentiment. Clearly this is a major difference between physical and digital interactions, however, with a few small adjustments, these impacts can be reduced. If possible, set your camera to also show your hands and chest (if possible waist) to include these in communication. It is clear that in the digital sphere, happenstance interactions are not common. I would however like to point out that this is mostly due to the lack of organisation and effort by all. There are many online tools and virtual gather places which allow for exactly these happenstance interactions. You can, for example, hop into a virtual room in gather.town or see who’s around in Discord.gg, which offer or even encourage such interactions. However, you have to make the effort to check into these online tools, you have to let people know you will be online from time to time and you have to engage others to do the same. Another major point is the distraction potential of virtual interactions. Since you are already on a digital device, it seems natural to explore your favourite digital realms whilst interacting with someone. You might simultaneously check a news site, browse for Black-Friday gadgets or answer some mails. This is not only easily done, but seems to be accepted in virtual interactions, but why? Image you are chatting with someone in the break of a conference and their eyes are glued to their smartphone screen, would that make you feel comfortable? So why do it during virtual meetings? Not only are you distracted and sending signals of un-interest, but due to your divided attention, you are not taking away as much from the social interaction as you would in a physical setting. I have heard the excuse that people are not used to this new form of communication, but I call bollocks. If you think about it, contact without physical presence has been a major part of human interactions since the invention of writing. Nowadays with the advances of smartphones and social media, we are constantly communicating with others without being present and many of us cannot fathom how life would be without this constant contact. However, to have authentic online interactions, we must strive to change our mindset towards more natural interactions. We must start treating virtual interactions the same as physical interactions.
I have always loved to facilitate contact, to get people together, to offer opportunities of social interactions. Social distancing has not stopped my efforts, I have just transitioned to an online setting and have organised a variety of online get-togethers, be it for a morning coffee, an after-work beer and chat or to play some games together. However, what I have noticed is people’s mindset is different to virtual interactions. In my experience, people with less experience in online interactions see these virtual interactions as less authentic and thus everything digital seems less binding. What I do not fully understand is people complaining about feeling isolated and alone, being “robbed” of all social interactions, and at the same time not turning up for virtual events. Or, at first, reply with exaggerated enthusiasm only to eagerly disappear into their lonely isolation on the other side of all those bits and bytes. However, people who do show up are surprised at how similar this form of social contact can be. I have received wonderful messages from friends and colleagues mentioning how much they enjoyed meeting up and that the evening was not all that different to a physical social event, albeit in front of a screen in the comfort of one’s home. So I would encourage everyone to start putting aside all the stereotypes and prejudice against virtual social interactions and approach this new form of contact with an open mind. You might be surprised.
I understand that physical social interactions offer things that virtual meetings cannot. Body language, happenstance interactions, social and verbal mobility, odours, ambience and various other important factors are missing or fundamentally different, I do not want to deny this. I would however like to point out, that virtual interactions can be just as interesting and entertaining as physical interactions, we just have to change our approach and especially our prejudice against this new form of contact. Below, I present some food for thought which might make digital dialogues, virtual ventures and online odysseys more natural.
As participants of virtual events:
- If in a group call someone is interested in your work or you in theirs, just write them a message if they are up for chatting another time. Just like you would do at a physical conference
- Don’t just leave the virtual room (switch off cam and mic) in every break, over lunch and right after a course/workshop. Chat with others in breaks, over lunch, after the course with a beverage of choice, just as you would if the meeting were physical.
- Don’t be afraid to meet new people, you would meet new people if physically present, so why be afraid digitally?
As hosts of virtual events:
- Leave the virtual meeting room open during the break and lunch. Have one main room (where you play some music for example) but also make a few breakout rooms, if people want to have face to face chats
- Include enough breaks throughout a day and randomly throw small groups of people into breakout rooms during these breaks. If the people then disappear for the duration of the break or stick around and chat is up to them
- Encourage people to come back for a drink after the course has ended
- Encourage people to contact each other with specific questions
- Allow private messaging
- Moderate discussions so that everyone has a chance to speak
- Set up a virtual room where people can meet even when the course/workshop has finished