the blog

Facing Up Face-To-Face

Steven Johnson, an author who blogs for The New York Times, recently wrote about the issue of virtual communication and social connections.His jumping-off point was a column by Thomas Friedman in the same newspaper lamenting the fact that we don’t speak to each other as much as we used to, due to the proliferation of technology. As a result, Friedman said, social connection is on the decline, blocked by technology, which is 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 got my attention: “But the Web gives us more of those opportunities [for social connections], 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 legions of executives communicate better, it has long been one of my tenets 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 foothold and plays a larger role in how we connect with each other, I find it more and more difficult to take such a hard line. And yet, experience repeatedly shows me that there are times when picking up the phone or seeing a client is the clear and correct choice.

In speeches that I give (face-to-face), I ask for a show of hands to answer a series of questions. The questions (and answers) are:

  • How many of you find that you text, IM or email more than you speak to someone on the phone or face-to-face?  (At least half the hands always go up.)
  • How many of you text, IM or email when you should be speaking on the phone or face-to-face? (More than half of the hands go up.)
  • How many of you have found that after several times of going back and forth by text, IM or email, you pick up the phone and call or go see the person you’re communicating with and solve the problem in 30 seconds? (Almost all the hands go up.)

Virtual Communication Has Significant Benefits

There are benefits to communicating using technology. 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 for which it is still expected and required that grammar and spelling be correct. It can be important, too, with the informal written forms of communication, text, 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 have ongoing conversations with people who are very far away or with others who may live close by, but  who we would not ordinarily or regularly meet face-to-face with. There is no question that this ability to communicate instantly with others all over our planet has been a tremendous boon to business. But does it foster social connections? My opinion: Not as well as we might think.

Speaking Fosters an Emotional Connection

As demonstrated by my three questions (see above), speaking can be a more efficient way to come to agreement or solve 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, text, IM and email are writing. Emotional content promotes connection. As a result, when we delegate much, if not most, of our communicating to the written forms, we lose the ability to connect on an emotional level.

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 extensively (and for the attendant and escalating costs of running a campaign). Campaign pros know that voters get so much more information from seeing a candidate, the more up-close-and-personal, the better. Questions such as “Do I like and trust this person,” are much easier to answer when we have had a chance to meet or at least see a candidate, than when we only hear or read written information about a candidate.

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.

We Do Business With People We Like

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 people are quiet, not 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 and feel comfortable with you?” This question can only be answered by regular, ongoing face-to-face contact. 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 vitally important. Dealing with customers, motivating your workforce, influencing your board of directors or managing the endless conflicts are just a few workplace environments in which face-to-face communication is critical.  Ultimately, the ability to do exceptionally well in business depends on facing up to this undeniable truth.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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