From offices to groups of friends, people have been coping with the social distancing measures by communicating online.
Conferences are done through various platforms, among which are Zoom, Google Meet, and Slack. Skype, which had been widely used before the pandemic for easy communication between individuals in different parts of the world, continues to enjoy popularity. An IP-PBX solution, which some businesses may have been using for their outbound call center, could also be designed to allow conference calling.
However, communication is complicated. Compared to the art of dance, sometimes, the interaction is like the synchronicity of the people involved. It is not a mere exchange of words. Rather, it involves a network of signs and symbols. There are different cues, for example, to tell if the person you are talking to is lying.
We see the effects of the lack of these nonverbal cues in online conferences. People are anxious about speaking, so there are dead airs and simultaneous outbursts. There are no other signs that could indicate someone wants to talk. The speaker cannot know what the real reactions of the other people are other than what they verbally express.
The icons that can be pressed to signify their feelings or intent can’t replace these cues. Reactions can easily be faked. Perhaps, in the future, communication technology experts will design a platform that could consider the communication that happens beyond the words.
When we interact, a large part of our message is inferred from our body language. We communicate our reluctance to say something, our nervousness, our happiness through how our body moves. Studies, for example, have observed that when talking in a group, our feet would naturally point to a person we are more interested in than the others. We are advised against folding our arms when talking with another person because it could communicate distrust or arrogance. And of course, there are the standard nodding, shaking of the head, hand gestures that are just natural to convey our unspoken reactions to whatever another person is saying.
These things are, unfortunately, lost in online communication platforms. Even if we force full-body videos, it’s not the same as being able to observe everyone at the same time, having our brain immediately pick up the subtle hints and responding to these in return.
Tone of voice
The tone in which a message is conveyed is also very important in communication. The same sentence would have a different impact and be interpreted differently by the person listening when delivered in different ways. An enthusiastic good morning would convey a different message when it is delivered in a somber tone.
Although the tone could be picked up when video or teleconferencing, it’s not as accurate as hearing a voice from someone in front of you. Connectivity issues and the quality of the device that the participants are using could affect it.
The eyes could seldom hide the real emotions behind the messages being conveyed. They provide important cues in communication, especially in sensitive discussions. The eyes give a hint as to what the other person is thinking about.
Video conferencing could more or less pick this up. Although, again, it depends on the quality of the devices used. Also, for large meetings, the use of videos is not advisable to maintain strong connectivity, especially for the participants who don’t have good connections.
Other unresolved issues with online communications
There had been a mixed reception for emoticons when they first became popular in chatting applications. Some were saying they shouldn’t be used in formal communications. Others acknowledge that these help replace the signifiers that are present when communicating face to face. But the fact that they had been created shows that people need to communicate beyond words.
Another issue with online communication right now is the added distractions. As opposed to having a conversation where everyone is present and focused on each other, people who are doing video conferences might be seeing something else outside of the screen. So the focus is dispersed, and the hints that are already difficult to communicate online might not be picked up.
Human communication is a complicated process. In the exchange of two sentences, a world of experiences, contexts, and interpretations are already exchanged. For this exchange to happen, several signifiers are interpreted and given back. When doing it face-to-face, all of these could happen in just a few seconds. This is something that still hasn’t been captured by robot designers that could only use limited prompts. But as the world becomes more digitally mediated, who knows, there might be some revolutionary developments soon.