The importance of being face to face

Humans are made to interact with each other. We are social beings, who read each other’s tone, facial expressions and body language when we are face to face. Some argue, however, that connecting predominantly via digital, typically using typed language, does not present a problem.

The arguments vary, with a frequent riposte being that it’s just being perceived as a problem because it’s new. But more profound considerations are not uncommon.

In one recent discussion, someone noted that their son, who is very shy, was able to connect and communicate with other gamers online, and so have a whole community of friends there. That was his circle – and who are we to argue that this modern way of connecting isn’t ‘good enough’? It’s a valid question – and as our digital communications eventually encompass a greater number of our senses, it will be even more pertinent.

There is a risk, of course, that he is hiding behind the digital connection to avoid seeking out real-life friendships. If he did not have the digital channels, he would perhaps overcome his shyness and meet people anyway. On the other hand, he might not and so feel completely alone.

Thrive with Digital has always celebrated all the good things about digital. Online tools enable you to find people with the same interests and to discover more about the world. They make the world smaller and make us feel closer to those far away. When we are texting someone in the same room, however, we’re putting up a barrier rather than taking it down.

While digital interaction can be good, old-style human interaction is vital. It isn’t currently replicated on digital – and using typed conversation will never be the same as human interaction.

It’s worth considering what we might be missing out on by attaching ourselves to a screen. Sherry Turkle eloquently explores this in her books, where she presents research findings showing how excessive use of text-only communication creates problems. In Reclaiming Conversation, she argues that we need to do just that. In particular in a family context, conversation is deemed vital to develop intimacy, trust and the capacity for friendship and empathy.

Given that our current way of using digital is predominantly made up of reading, writing and viewing recorded images or videos, the mode of communication itself robs us of an enormous amount of additional information. In one episode of the brilliant series The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman showed how those who had used botox were not as able to read the facial expressions of others simply because they were unable to mirror what they saw.  It’s an indication of how important our face to face interactions are.

We read facial expressions, body language and tone to understand other people – and that is, of course, where empathy develops. One area of our brain (posterior superior temporal sulcus)  specialises in recognising facial expressions. A study from 2013 showed that when people talk to each other face to face, they share similar activity in their left inferior frontal cortex. This didn’t happen when they spoke back-to-back. Further, touch builds trust and you pay more attention when you meet in person. In an increasingly polarised world, now, more than ever, we need the empathy that real-world interactions help fuel.

Please note that due to a fault, this post was not published when intended, so the publishing date is backdated.

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