Being Together, Communicating Apart

“Zoom is just not the same. It never will be.” said Miss Alissa in our end-of-year parent-teacher conference.

She’s right.

Zoom calls, now everywhere thanks to the COVID pandemic, aren’t the same as communicating together with other people in shared physical space. Early 2020 onward, thus far, is plenty of evidence for that.

Everyone felt the massive shock in the shift away from direct, in-person communication to a host of different mediated forms: Zoom calls, FaceTime visits, text message exchanges, and so on. Everyone has been impacted: teachers and students, work teams, families, everyone. Nearly instantly, almost every normal communication shifted in some way: doctor visits, personalized shopping appointments, and work teams.

This instance gives rise to the possibility of thinking about how our physical co-presence, or separation, impacts communication. There was, essentially, a forced mass exodus from face-to-face communication and a rush towards communication in other forms.

We can’t not do it. We can’t not communicate. Simultaneously, while in-person contact was being driven down at work and other places, it was increasing in our homes where we sequestered. There were consequences to that as well.

Different channels make communication different. Specifically, I’m talking about our physical togetherness, called “co-presence” and how it impacts communication. I’m also talking about physical separation. (Note: This isn’t “absence.” Absence signifies not being present, but whenever you communicate, you are present, you just might not be together.) For my purposes here, I’m going to call these “mediated” or “technological.”

Let’s do some comparing and contrasting of face-to-face communication (F2F) and technologically-mediated forms of communication and think through what about communication is impacted by physical presence, or it’s opposite, and what that does to how humans communicate.

Assumptions

A few operational assumptions to get out of the way immediately:

  • Physical separation doesn’t prevent us from making meaning together. We can not be together physically and still communicate.

  • We can’t valorize F2F as some sort of “pure” communication and technological forms of communication as “not.” F2F v. Technology is a false choice. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking communication via technology is somehow “not real” communication. It’s real. It’s just different.

  • Different channels are exactly that, different. Channels are unlimited in number and no one channel is better or worse. Each channel has its purposes, strengths, and landmines.

  • Some things happen in F2F communication that is exceedingly difficult upon impossible to replicate with technology.

Some Essentials of F2F (Co-Presence)

So, what’s special about being physically together when we communicate?

For starters there are physiological benefits and chemical stimulation to being co-present with one another. Extensive research has documented the health benefits of expressing emotions, such as stress or grief to others. F2F communication results in the neural synchronization of left inferior frontal cortices of your brain and whoever you’re communicating with. I bet you didn’t know that.

Endorphins and chemicals are released by our social brains when we work well together with others, forge deeper connections, and converse with people. These biological wires get tripped no matter how we communicate, but they are intensely different between people in proximity. We’re primal though we like to think we’re not.

It’s undeniable that physically co-present communication with other humans matters. It’s actually quite a matter of life and death. It’s why solitary confinement and prisoner isolation is traumatic and inhumane. It’s why purposefully ignoring someone is ignominious behavior. And, it’s why infant language deprivation experiments such as those concocted by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II were so grotesquely cruel. TL;DR that link? All the babies died. It turns out that if you don’t give human babies attention, ignore them, or don’t speak to them, they die.

It’s the same reason why it can be thrilling to see someone you’re madly in love with after being separated from them for a long time, or why physical isolation during a global pandemic brings up more challenges about communication and technology that most of us ever considered.

When we communicate F2F, synchronicity is relatively natural. Sure, people are weird and some humans can’t interact smoothly with the person (or people) across from them, but as we humans are naturally conversational, we are easily capable of talking and interacting with one another with ease — our desire to actually do so not withstanding.

We are meaning-makers at our core.

Co-presence enables possibilities for depth that isn’t always possible through technology. That is, I think there are things that are best discussed directly across from another person, if possible. Sometimes, that is the ideal for the best outcome.

This is the Miss Alissa principle. The basic idea that being physically together is different from being separate and mediated. Being together allows for deeper explorations, longer paths, and bountiful opportunities for meaning-making, exchange, interactions of all sorts. Sometimes, it can be hard for technology to replicate certain conditions that happen when we’re face-to-face.

Technology gives rise to conditions of its own.

Some Essentials of Separation (Technological Mediation)

So what happens when we use technology?

Synchronicity is impacted. Technology can make communication herky-jerky, sometimes stilted, and makes communication an interface’s distance removed from the person you’re communicating with. Every technology also has tools we can call upon when we use that channel. When you are in an app, for example, there are different ways to share and you are likely to share different things. This is the shape of the channel.

Healthy relationships and good communication can result from communication that is completely physically-separate. Technologically-mediated links of connection is enough to sustain certain relationships. There’s no mandate we must communicate F2F to find success.

The channel you choose or use always matter. Zoom calls, direct conversations, email, texting, naval flags, they all do something different to communication. Each channel allows us to connect differently. For example, when you’re “texting” with a friend, there is actual text (words), but there’s a host of other ways to transmit meaning: reaction gifs, emojis, videos, and so on. The possibilities here are endless.

Third Ways….

There are many questions about how being physically together (or not) impacts communication — questions that aren’t obvious unless pointed out.

For example, we can’t only look at the good sides of being together. Physical co-presence is not just positive. There can be a dark side to human behavior as well. There’s physical violence which is never just physical but also symbolic. Leaving toxic situations is liberating. It’s not only “wild” animals that have adverse reactions to being cornered.

Power is the monster that lurks in the background.

Less physical contact may actually result in certain, more beneficial outcomes. For example, lower friction/fewer interactions at work are likely to result in a decline of microaggressions. Less conversational contact means less opportunity for microaggressions to occur. This could be a positive outcome from more separated, mediated communication and less F2F communication. However, as we see declines in physical togetherness at work, we see accompanying increases in physical togetherness at home. This results in spikes in domestic violence and abuse.

Pressing down in one spot results in bulges elsewhere.

Channels are likely to get better and increase in number. Future channels will enable communication differently. Technology will continue to evolve to fit our needs to connect to one another. These new ways are likely to attempt to bridge the physical gaps between us. AR/VR, for example, is an area to monitor for developments in this regard.

Conclusions

Communication is different when we’re physically together and when we’re not. Channels matter. Obvious, but worth exploring. If you text someone rather than call someone, it’s different. If you stop by someone’s house to say hi rather than sending them an email, it’s different. If we all have to be indefinitely trapped on Zoom calls for the rest our lives, well, that has consequences.

The rub with technology is that it often allows us to communicate faster, with more people, and in new ways. Do mediated interactions seem to fall short? Sure, sometimes. This might often seem to be the case, but maybe that is just our perception. Or maybe our distaste technological interactions results from our comfort levels with what we know? Does something always call or pull us to communicate face-to-face?

Some of us don’t have a distaste for technologically-mediated interactions at all. Technology brings a freedom of choice and it can bring comfort. Maybe we’re perfectly content and happy talking to people on FaceTime and via text. There’s no shame in that. Why would there be?

There may be some “magical” aspects of communication that stem from being physically present with others. As a friend of mine says, “I like to see the glimmer in their eye.” It’s not the only way to communicate, but it is special. F2F communication may or may not be technologically replicable, but technology brings its own benefits.

How to manage the physical distances between us is an ongoing question. This question is not going away. We can, at the least, start to make better, more conscious choices about how to connect and be cognizant of what might be missing (or present!) when we’re physically together or digitally separate.