What Do We Lose When We Connect in a Two-Dimensional World?

We need to take in surroundings and context to fully engage with others.

Posted Feb 26, 2021

After almost a year of virtual meetings and get-togethers, the fatigue of two-dimensional life is ever more exhausting. Countless friends and colleagues have commented to me about how surprised they are that working, meeting, even socializing online is more draining than they recall the real thing to have been. 

For the most part, we chalked it up to the pandemic; all the efforts we needed to take to protect ourselves and our loved ones from illness were the reason for our exhaustion. That certainly has contributed to the fatigue. But there is an added exhaustion: It is the loss of context. 

What do I mean by loss of context? We are interacting with others without seeing, feeling, and sensing the larger space around them. We laugh at cartoons and memes and commercials where a person is dressed professionally from the waist up, and in sweats and flip flops or pajama bottoms and slippers on the unseen parts, with viewers on the other end of the virtual world having no idea. While humorous, the limited view we have of others has a cost.

Without in-person contact, we focus on the room, even creating the Room Rater game. There are canned backgrounds or filters, erasing what little context we can see. There is minimal body language to read. Muting keeps us from hearing sounds, erasing audio context. These are just a few of the cues we lose in the virtual world. All the cues we normally use to take in context get compressed or disappear completely when we interact virtually.

During the summer, I began working with a new collaborator, and since it was, and continues to be, the time of pandemic distance, all our work has been through video calls. I am lucky enough to have a home office which I used for all our meetings. My background setting was real, but always the same. One day my dog walked into the camera view, and my colleague was so excited because he said he could get a better sense of me. He joked that he was worried that I was stuck in that one room that seemed to never change.

Was that entirely a joke, or was there something missing in understanding who I was? Did my dog provide a bit more context about my life? For our next meeting, I used my laptop and changed rooms, kidding him that I didn’t want him to think I lived in that one space, but I also wanted to provide more context to give a bit more depth and understanding of who I am.

What does the loss of context mean? In my study of empathy, it is vital to have context. The loss of it can compromise our abilities to engage in the components that make up the full array of interpersonal and social empathy.

Context is critical in building self-other awareness and perspective-taking, two fundamental skills behind interpersonal empathy. We need to differentiate ourselves from others so that we can share their feelings, but know those feelings belong to the other person so that we can stay separate and not become overwhelmed.

Context helps us to place the other person in their world and stay in ours. We may not confuse ourselves with the other person in virtual communication, but we cannot easily place them in their world when all we have is a two-dimensional picture of their world, which might not even be real, just a manufactured backdrop. We are unconsciously searching for the context. This is especially true for perspective-taking, the skill that asks us to walk in the shoes of another. It is already difficult to place ourselves fully in the experience of another person, but without the context of their experience, it is even more difficult.

It is even worse with multiple people on a virtual call. We have meetings all the time with everyone participating as only a talking head without context. I confess to having spaced out while sitting in many meetings over my lifetime, but I have also been drawn into the shared emotions in a room in a way that is deeply moving. It is difficult to have that deeply shared feeling when we are not experiencing the same context.

Please know that I am not denigrating online connections. I am grateful that I can keep my job because I have the ability to work from home. I am not isolated from coworkers, family, and friends thanks to the power of the virtual world. But I want us to recognize how exhausting it is because we are searching for the context of our shared experiences, and that is an impossible task to accomplish. So what can we do?

When we work with people who have deficits in empathy but want to learn to be empathic, we tell them to do two things—ask what others are feeling and be sure to tell others what you are feeling. It is a form of concrete checking-in and verifying if we are reading each other correctly. These techniques are useful in the virtual world we now inhabit. We are operating with a deficit in empathic information in the two-dimensional virtual world so we need to use concrete skills to make up for a lack of context. Be sure to check in with those on the other side of the screen. Ask them directly how they are doing because it can be difficult to infer that without the context of being together face-to-face. Until we can share context, we need to make extra effort to connect in the two-dimensional virtual world.