It’s good to remember that words are but a small portion of communication, which operates in a larger space. Body language, gesticulation, facial expressions, speed, tone, inflexion, and intonation, all combine to convey at least as much. This is why a written document is always lacking. This is why important or sensitive information should be delivered in person unless you are willing to risk misinterpretation.
In the post-covid reality, some people have moved a lot of their previously face-to-face communication to one of the various videoconference services. Infants rely highly on the face, and they express much through the face. Even domesticated dogs have expressive faces. The face conveys a lot of information. This helps to make videoconference a decent means of communication. It is a step up over the telephone for instant communication, but it still falls short. Even over the phone, one can still use delivery speed and pacing. Tone, inflexion, and intonation should be able to be conveyed, but this may also be limited by connexion quality as well as microphone and speaker quality. However, body language and gesticulation are still largely absent. What may be present can be lost over a small viewing screen or poor video quality.
What gets left behind or limited are cues of authenticity and trust. I remember I had a client in Texas who preferred not to speak with my manager and other executives from the New York office. We had all met in person in the pre-Covid world, and the Texans had judged these people as “fast-talking city folks” instead of real down-to-earth people. I may be a city-slicker, but I’m not as fast-talking. One of these men was a great communicator in my eyes, but these are city eyes. As for the other person, he had snake-oil salesman written all over him, but he tried to hide it in all his erudition. He was very book-smart but lacking in authenticity.
Allow me to pause for a moment to riff on authenticity. In one way, I don’t believe in authenticity because I don’t believe there is anything to be authentic to. I write about this in many posts and at length. On the other hand, authenticity is that you believe what you are saying—you mean what you say, and you say what you mean. So what you are asking me to believe, you believe yourself.
If spoken communication is so important, why do you write a blog? That a picture is worth a thousand words is telling. In fact, a picture may convey a thousand words, but it’s probably conveying almost infinite words—or it could be. Words typically fail to transmit metaphor and intent. If we want to be clear, we need to add all sorts of additional words to allay confusion. Perhaps we need to include background information, tangential information, context, and whatnot. By the time we include all of the information that would be conveyed by the face and gesture, we’ve probably overwhelmed the recipients with a document that reads like a terms and conditions page—the ones almost no one reads but tick the box at the end anyway.
What is lost or diminished over video is authenticity and emotional content. Of course, a person can convey sympathy, empathy, and compassion over the phone, but to me, it’s like the wire monkeys in the old psychology experiments by Dr Harry Harlow. You get something to cling to—perhaps even a blanket around the wire is better than nothing. If the telephone is a wire monkey, videoconference is the wire monkey wrapped in a Teri-towel. The human element is still missing. We’re interacting with a simulacrum.
Some people are amazed at the prospect of holograms in the manner of Princess Leia’s grand entrance. “Help me, Obi-Wan.” Indeed, help us all. It is a step in the right direction, but mind the gap.
In the end, we should at least strive to prioritise in-person communication. At least in the movies, when they want to tell a loved one that their combatant or police officer has fallen (read: died), they do this in person. It should be telling that this also convey’s an emotional message to the audience that is often received as intended. It may cost more, but be sure to evaluate this cost against the benefits. Consider the lost benefits as well.