Tag Archives: Relationships

The Story is Not the Experience

My eyes are not working as they should be right now. The words are blurry, so I’m typing with eyes closed. I suspect it’s some sort of migraine; I’ve been there before. A headache slammed into my head shortly after I returned from my run and I’ve taken painkillers and drunk a whole lot of water, and I’m almost done with my first cup of coffee. My head is far less sore than it was half an hour ago, but my eyes haven’t caught up.

And yet, I could be wrong. Perhaps the blur is because the lenses of my glasses are simply dirty. That’s easy to test, so I take them off, give them a good wipe, and aha! Problem solved.

Yes, sometimes it’s really easy to tell when something’s wrong. Physical pain, someone we love “forgetting” to return calls, a colleague crying in the office, a teenager’s choice to adopt a dramatic new hairstyle are all obvious calls that something is up. We can see it, or feel it or hear it.

But these are symptoms, and all we know is the symptom but not the cause, so we make assumptions and our assumptions might be mistaken.

If we can be wrong when something is tangible and immediate, consider how much more wrong we can be when it’s not. I have written before about the importance of listening and building relationships and, more recently, of the challenges of communication in a digital era. That piece focused on the difficulty of sharing meaning in the absence of visual cues, but did not explicitly address the challenges of communication across time, place, and space. And it is crucial to do so.

I am speaking from the lens of one living half a world away from my family. We speak daily and message almost as often, yet we still experience breakdowns in communication. Why?

As we know, the purpose and method of communication changes out of necessity when crossing time zones. We often need to wait to contact others and there is precious little real time immediacy in our conversations. Instead, we lag. I could send a message to my mum about my blurry eyes right now, but it’s the middle of the night where she is and I can’t expect her to respond, so I turn to friends nearby or other sources for help.

I would rather have spoken with my mum, but by the hour our time windows align, my eyes have returned to normal. There are far more interesting things to discuss, and really there is no point in worrying her unnecessarily. So she will never know.

Now imagine this in a much more serious context. Imagine your partner is on a business trip and has just been robbed. Wallet gone, identification gone. When you finally speak six hours later when it’s morning for you, your partner has already gone to the police, recovered the wallet, and attended the late afternoon meeting. “I was robbed” is now a very different story. Your partner might have been terrified at the time and never mention it. Perhaps the fear itself has become a memory or perhaps he was robbed at a strip club. Either way, you’ll never know.

Let’s go further. Covid-19 is a phenomenon that has spread across the globe and it has caught us in very different places. Our experiences in the last few months differ based on location, age, employment status, living situation, health, and through what we choose to read. But we do not recognize that we see things differently, even as we compare across countries. Even though we should know better, we expect that others are experiencing largely the same things as we are.

Those sharing real time and place with a person who has contracted Covid-19 have a different experience of the illness than those who are not there, and the lived experience might not be communicated faithfully. Those present who experience scary moments, for example, might for a number of reasons omit the memory of these moments from any later conversation. This can happen either intentionally much in the same way as the examples above – why worry someone who is far away and can do nothing anyway? – or unintentionally – those moments have passed and there are other things to talk about

And yet, they may well expect others to know how they were feeling or what was happening. They may be upset that the listener does not respond with as much concern as they had expected. The speaker assumes shared context, which might be mistaken. In this case, the listener misses the fact that just because we are talking about the same thing does not mean we experienced the same thing. Similarly, it is also understandable that the speaker may leave things out. But omission means that the listener does not have the same story. 

I do not think this is anything new. We know and largely accept the above when reading the news. We know that the way we respond to nationally, globally, and culturally significant events such as war, famine, festivals, and Super Bowls varies widely depending on our experiences with these events. But we often do not consider that the same might be true of personally relevant events. We might not consider the power of time, place, and space when it hits much closer to home. 

And we might therefore make the mistake of expecting others to see, understand, and behave just like us.

How to Tell When Someone is Smiling

The Covid-19 circuit breaker measures here in Singapore mean that we are unable to interact in person with anyone who is not a member of our household. Going to the grocery store for a little human interaction has been very real.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been really good about starting the day with some physical activity, usually going for a run but otherwise practicing yoga. It has been really important to me to create a transition into the working day. A couple days ago, however, my need for human interaction was greater than my need to feel my body move.

So I made a cup of coffee and called an old friend. I could hear the smile in her voice when she picked up the phone and I know she could hear the same in mine. We caught up while on my side of the world, the sun rose and the day began. My friend’s day was just beginning to wind down. Since moving overseas, I’ve rarely made a phone call to another timezone without first planning to do so. People are always rushing about and it’s more likely I’ll miss them than not.

But not right now. Many people I know are waiting with open arms for human interaction right now.

Let’s keep this part of our new world, shall we?


I had conversation over the phone with my mum not too many days later and we talked about how strange she finds it to interact with people wearing masks. I know that this is very unfamiliar in North America, but I’ve lived in Asia for some time now and masks aren’t all that unusual here. The fact that the stores ran out of masks as everyone began buying them indicates that stores stock masks as a normal product (and they were back in stock as quickly as toilet paper). Reusable masks have always been common among people who ride motorcycles and there were always some food service workers wearing masks. And then there were the people who wore masks just because it’s not a strange thing here.

Mum said that people where she is don’t look at each other and don’t interact. My sister, located in another North American city, has said that people regard one another almost suspiciously. People in Singapore aren’t as overtly friendly as people often are in North America, but I have not had the same experience. People still communicate and some wave to the people they see every day. People are smiling, even if you can’t see it.

I started to think about this when my mum mentioned that she’d smiled at someone in thanks and then realised he couldn’t see it. I know I’ve been doing the same thing (because I was raised in a society where that’s what you do) but I also know I’ve become much more aware of the expressions around people’s eyes and foreheads.

When you can’t see someone’s face, how do you know if they’re smiling?

I thought back to my phone call with my friend. I’m not fond of video calls because I make most of my calls to other time zones when I’m getting ready for work in the morning. A good old fashioned voice call suits me just fine. I have never questioned whether the person on the other end of the line is smiling. Probably like you, I just just know.

When you can’t see someone’s face, you still know when they’re smiling. If you’re face to face, look around their eyes. The corners might crinkle or the cheeks might lift. Eyebrows or foreheads might wrinkle. If you’re on the phone, or can’t see each other, or if a mask has thrown you off completely, just listen. People sound different when they’re smiling.


Covid-19 has meant that we need to adapt in ways that many of us never imagined. It has led me to ask questions about the ways in which humans have evolved and why we behave in the ways that we do.

It has also caused me to look at the world a little differently, a little more carefully, and a little more critically. There is not one way to live in the world, this I have learned, but there are some ways that are more pleasant than others. There are ways in which we can honour our social responsibility while still doing what makes us feel whole. We can look at the world openly or with suspicion, and this attitude affects not only our outlook but also the ways we interact with others.

Wearing a mask might be new or strange, but it’s a whole lot better to be out in the world with one than trapped alone at home without one.

What We Lose with Digital Communication

Houseparty. Zoom. Skype. FaceTime. Google Meet. Etc.

Indeed, there are myriad ways to remotely connect with others. Doing so is important in a world that does not find most of us living together in groups of extended family or friends. The current global pandemic response to Covid-19 is requiring us to rethink how we maintain our social relationships, particularly those that were previously largely restricted to the domain of face-to-face communication. Those relationships have now either gone by the wayside or have crossed into the realm of the relationships that were already largely digital.

We know that Covid-19 has turned the world on its head. This provides an important opportunity to delve into the influences digital technology has had, and will continue to have, on the ways that we communicate with others. Humans are social creatures who have evolved due to and on the basis of face-to-face relationships; digital communication is not that and we are not wired to communicate digitally.

This is not to say that digital communication cannot benefit nor facilitate interaction, but it does not have the same impact as a face-to-face conversation. While many might argue for its necessity, we also need to understand what digital communication can and cannot provide for its highly social users.

Neurological elements of conversation

Firstly, face-to-face communication allows for the full gamut of available stimuli to be processed by our brain. We have evolved to recognise micro-expressions and interpret body language and tone subconsciously and rapidly as part of what comprises communication. Recent psychology research, such as that of Joy Hirsch among many others, suggests that we mimic others’ gestures during verbal communication to enhance comprehension. Both congruence and incongruence between gestures and verbal communication act as social cues that then inform the subsequent interaction. Hirsch extends this research into trust, arguing that it is congruence between gestural and verbal communication that signals openness and trust.

Additional research suggests that face-to-face communication leads to activation of mirror neurons, which fire when we are performing a specific action and watch others do the same. This ability to recognise, process, and experience the mental states of others is one of the explanations that psychology can provide for the development of human empathy. Current research with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has allowed researchers to look at areas of the brain that activate in relation to the self, to others, and in relation to a computer. When dealing with humans, the hormone oxytocin increases trust. The same response does not occur when dealing with a computer.

Unfortunately, the nature of digital communication allows so much scope for distraction, so much extraneous cognitive load, that achieving such a relationship is nigh impossible. The implications of this are obvious.

But there are other effects to consider.

Empathy

As social creatures, humans have evolved to step into the shoes of others (whom those others might be is a fun topic in evolutionary psychology research) and take action accordingly. Relationships require us to understand one another’s emotions and perspectives and most of us know that this is challenging at the best of times. What happens when digital communication removes the facial expressions, gestures, tone, and cadence that we rely on to understand the meaning behind what others are saying? Additionally, what happens if we have not actually developed the ability to interpret these complex, nuanced cues as a result of the depth to which we have adopted digital communication?

Research suggests a decline in empathy scores over time with the most significant change occurring between 2000 and 2009, correlating with the rise of digital communication. Later generations of college students have shown lower scores on both empathic concern, the emotional component of empathy, and perspective-taking, the cognitive component of empathy. Clearly, this is a problem.

However, it is also fair to point out that not all digital activity is the same and, therefore, the effects digital activity has on empathy can also vary. Research suggests that online activities that are a precursor to face-to-face communication are associated with higher real-life empathy, but other online activities that do not lead to face-to-face communication instead reduce real-world empathy scores. For example, chatting online with someone for a month means that I am far more likely to be empathic towards them when/if we meet in person, but participating in online activities based in fantasy worlds that do not transfer to real life might actually reduce real-world empathy.

Moreover, substituting digital communication for face-to-face communication can lead to a decrease in empathy because the brain’s empathic response depends on stimuli that digital communication filters out. As the researchers above suggest, while virtual empathy is positively correlated with real-world empathy, it is lower overall than real-world empathy scores. This means that we do not respond the same way in digital and in in-person spaces.

For example, think of the last time you ended a digital conversation feeling dissatisfied or distant. There’s a very strong possibility that someone responded to you in a digital space in ways that are not as thoughtful as you would have liked. This might be because the cues you sent were simply not picked up.

This brings us to another effect of digital communication, which is that of distraction.

Distraction

Most of us have been there. We’re messaging a friend and waiting for a reply when another notification pops up, or a housemate walks into the room, or the timer on the oven goes off. We put down our phone and our conversation pauses. When we return to the conversation again, even moments later, we pick up like nothing has happened.

But it has. While I’m taking something out of the oven or replying to an email, my friend might be sitting alone waiting for my response. My friend might have watched my status go from “typing” to blank space. And when I return to the conversation, I have no way of knowing what my friend has experienced in the time that lapsed. My friend doesn’t know what I was doing, either. 

In person, conversation depends on cadence and on rhythm. It ebbs and flows based on pauses, tone, and body language. I show I am listening by nodding or making appropriate noises. And I know it’s my turn to speak when suitable time has passed or I am asked a question.

Despite the immediacy of face-to-face communication, misunderstandings still occur. We all know this. This begs the question: If we get conversation wrong so often in real life, with all the richness of the cues and prompts in full view, how do we fare in the sterility of a digital space?

Psychology tells us (thanks to Danish physicist Tor Nørretranders) that over 85% of the stimulus that goes into our brains is visual, which means that all of the visual stimulus occurring at a particular time is competing for our attention. This means that anything that our eyes hook onto runs the chance of taking our attention away from anything else that was happening. As stated above, this could be as seemingly benign as a notification.

Psychology also tells us that less than 1% of all the sensory stimuli that are around us arrive at the brain. Think about that again. Less than 1% of what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste actually gets registered by our brain.  Attention is the most critical variable in being understood, yet it is also the thing that is seduced the most in a remote world. Without the immediacy of our conversation partner to direct us to the interaction that we are having, we waver, we wander, and we lose.

Induced media multitasking

Considering what we know about the brain’s capacity to pay attention to stimuli, it is not surprising that humans are poor multitaskers. In fact, we do not multitask at all. Instead, the brain performs extremely rapid switches to allow us to go back and forth between tasks. As I write this, music is playing in the background. I’m finding it hard to concentrate on the words I’m typing when Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is interrupting.

But if you’re anything like my students, you’d shout, “But wait! I need music to focus!” Some people claim that. Although the human brain is wired to process competing stimuli as a matter of survival, the processing of multiple stimuli means that we have a greater cognitive load and therefore less bandwidth, as in the above from Nørretranders, to pay attention. This means that while we can, by all appearances, do more than one thing at once, or attend to more than one area at a time, switching our attention also means that we do neither thing well.

To put it bluntly, the digital world requires us to look at multiple things. We do not look at any of them well, despite all we might say to convince ourselves and others of the opposite.

The erosion of meaningful connection

When communicating in digital spaces, we are less empathic, more distracted, and caught between competing stimuli. These are only some of the considerations to be aware of as our contact with others increasingly occurs in the digital world.

I am particularly concerned with the effects this has on meaningful human connection. If all of the above weren’t enough, also consider the fact that it is far easier to separate ourselves from others in a digital space than in a physical environment. One issue here is the security that many feel with the anonymity that digital communication provides. The research on bullying speaks volumes about what can happen when people are not in real-world contact with one another.

Furthermore, my digital communication with another person is separated by a screen. I might read their words or even hear their voice but I am in my own world and my own space. This prevents me from experiencing what my conversation partner is describing and can lead to desensitization of myself from another person. I am occupied with my world and choose when to enter theirs but we no longer occupy the space together. As we become more distant from one another, our conversations might fade from intimate, if they ever were, to cursory. 

Ultimately, the fear is that we are leading to a world of emotional isolation. If we are separated from others and cannot connect empathically with them the way that we are wired to do, what is left of communication? And without the connection that real-world communication facilitates, who do we become? How are we supposed to feel, to experience, to be? Who can we share our lives with?

These are very real questions that have been asked before, but the time now mandates that we ask them again, and do so forcefully.  All of us who are fortunate enough to have access to the digital world will experience some if not all of what is noted above, and all of us are therefore obliged to look around us, to acknowledge the issues that exist, and to act so that we can maintain some of our humanity.


Special thanks to a friend for the questions and dialogue that sparked this piece.