Face to Face: Relating in a Changed World

Our eyes, gestures, and tone put us in sync and bring us together in a more profound way than words alone. It’s why we look hopefully toward the return of in-person, face-to-face connection.

By Sara Eckel, published April 23, 2020 - last reviewed on May 5, 2020

Alex Dupeux, used with permission.
Alex Dupeux, used with permission.

Shortly before California State University classes went online last March, one of English professor Noreen Lace’s students explained why she was falling behind in her work: She had recently been evicted and was homeless. “We saw each other twice a week. She felt comfortable enough to share her struggles with me, and I was able to offer her some resources,” says Lace, who has taught both in-person and online classes for 15 years.

While Lace fully supported the move to digital learning in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, she also knew what she and her students would lose. Online, she says, it’s just harder to connect. She notes that an online student recently disappeared for three weeks. When she finally resurfaced, she told Lace she’d been “having problems” but ignored the professor’s offer to help. “In an online class, the students aren’t always getting my tone,” Lace says. “In a face-to-face class, I can come across very strong in terms of saying, ‘This is the work we have to do,’ but I’m also joking and more personal.”

The coronavirus outbreak has underscored the tremendous benefits technology can offer. During the period of quarantining and self-distancing, the luckiest of us have been able to connect with coworkers via Slack or Skype, keep up with class via Zoom, FaceTime with grandparents, and share gallows humor on social media. Our ability to connect digitally has likely saved lives—and rescued many individuals’ sanity.

But we have also learned, at times painfully, how much we miss it when we can’t see each other face-to-face. We have realized how lonely it feels to not hug a friend, and how easily misunderstandings can arise when coworkers aren’t in the same room. We have developed a visceral comprehension of what neuroscientists have long known: No matter how sophisticated our algorithms, they’ll never match the intricately fine-tuned communication system in our bodies and brains.

Alex Dupeux, used with permission.
Alex Dupeux, used with permission.

“When we’re in the presence of another person, our bodies in a very reflective way begin to attune to the body of the other person,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the Science Director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Our heart rates synchronize, we start to mirror each other’s gestures and facial expressions, and our voices take on a similar register. Once our physiological states align, we’re better able to understand each other.

Prior to the crisis, we were voluntarily forgoing many of these benefits as we retreated into our digital lives. Now that we’ve been forced to deal with social isolation, it’s a good time to reconsider the advantages of face-to-face communication and to quantify what we realize we may be missing during this unprecedented period, with the hope of improving human interaction during the pandemic and beyond.

What the Body Knows

The divergent reactions of Lace’s two troubled students underscore a key distinction between face-to-face and digital communication. In person, we know whom to trust. Neuroscientist Stephen Porges has likened our bodies to polygraph machines: Our autonomic nervous system constantly monitors our surroundings to keep us out of danger. Without thinking about it, we pick up nonverbal cues that tell us whether the person we’re interacting with is a friend or a foe. Our heart rate, perspiration, and respiration send those signals in a process called neuroception.

When we sense danger—say, seeing a stranger barrel toward us at night—our sympathetic nervous system sends us into a “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. When we realize we’re safe—“Oh, that’s just my friend Bill”—the parasympathetic nervous system drops those defenses. This process is involuntary: Until we truly feel safe, we’re locked in defense mode.

Once we realize there is no threat from the person we face, we start to synchronize and mirror each other. For example, if someone sitting at a bus stop looks up the street, her neighbor will look that way too—that is, unless she’s mesmerized by her phone. From there, they might discuss when the bus is coming; they might even tap each other on the arm or share a laugh. “Then their bodies may begin to release oxytocin, which signals that they’re of social interest to one another and perhaps have reason to cooperate,” Simon-Thomas says.

The more we recognize our shared humanity, the more adept we are at reading each other. Simon-Thomas says we’re proficient at perceiving even tiny fluctuations in others’ faces—in the cheeks, the forehead—that convey relief or distress. “Even if I don’t know anything about you, I will understand if I’ve said something that has ever-so-slightly rubbed you the wrong way,” she says.

But if we deny ourselves this interpersonal contact, or are denied it by circumstance, as many are now, we risk losing this ability out of sheer lack of practice. “If you don’t have that input, the circuits and pathways and structures dedicated to that kind of processing will atrophy,” Simon-Thomas says.

Out of Sync

When Lace teaches a live class, she has 30 students who ask each other questions, one after the other. She works with them in real time, adjusting and fine-tuning as she goes. “By the end of the hour and a half, they’ve got it,” she says. Online, however, students don’t benefit as much from each other’s learning; instead they’re emailing and posting isolated questions.

The asynchrony of text-based platforms makes it harder to communicate, says Oxford University evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. “What’s important for conversations is the flow. Anything text-based is clunky because the time delay almost destroys the sense of the conversation going on,” he says.

For many, that time lag is the whole point. Daniel Cheung admits that for more than a decade he has relied on digital technology to maintain his relationships—with his parents, his business associates, and even his wife. “The great thing about digital is that you can type it in, edit it, or delete it. But when you’re having that real conversation with someone, it’s live and you can’t censor it. The fear is, What if I say something wrong? What if I offend them? It’s the fear of being perceived by others as a complete idiot,” says Cheung, an analyst for a digital marketing company in Sydney, Australia.

It’s a sentiment Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor of the psychology of technology, has heard many times. “My students want to sound perfect all the time and are terrified of not sounding completely in control,” says Turkle, the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age.

When they hide behind their screens, Turkle says, her students miss out on one of the most important aspects of learning—facing a question that initially stumps them. “That’s a moment of truth,” Turkle says. “It’s where you’re looking into a deeper place and trying to figure out what you think.”

Alex Dupeux, used with permission.
Alex Dupeux, used with permission.

I Hear You

Cheung might worry that he’ll say the wrong thing in the moment, but he also understands the pitfalls of relying on text. Years ago, he worked as a wedding photographer and emailed a potential client a price quote. “I was experimenting with sales techniques, alluding to the fact that I was toward the high end of the market, and said, ‘I don’t know if you guys can afford it.’ That really rubbed them the wrong way,” he says.

If Cheung had been speaking with the couple in person, he might have been able to recover from his gaffe, Dunbar says: “In a live conversation, you can manage that situation before it gets out of hand. You’re monitoring constantly how the other person is receiving what you’ve been saying. And when it becomes apparent that your joke is going awry, you can change the story or try to get out of it. You can’t do that with text-based media.”

What’s more, in a real-time conversation, our voices provide a wealth of information. Recent research by Dunbar found that people are extremely adept at reading nonverbal vocal cues. In the study, participants listened to audio clips of people speaking to one another, but in some cases the speakers’ words were audibly blurred. The team found that participants who listened to the blurred conversations were able to determine the quality of the relationships (positive or negative) with 80 percent of the accuracy of those who could understand the words. “It’s really quite remarkable,” Dunbar says. “Most of the information we give each other about our relationships comes from these nonverbal cues. The verbal content is only adding a relatively small amount.”

When we shoot someone a text, we wrongly assume that the other person understands our frame of mind, as he would if we were speaking in person. But of course this isn’t true. You can gently tease a friend in person and it’s clear you’re being affectionate, but in a text those same words can seem hostile, no matter how many winking emojis you add. “This is a little bit of an evolutionary mismatch,” Simon-Thomas says. “Our nervous systems didn’t anticipate that we’d be communicating in this way, and we didn’t adjust. So we have misunderstandings.”

Alex Dupeux, used with permission.
Alex Dupeux, used with permission.

You Make Me Feel Seen

For the past decade, Margaret Legum has used video-conferencing to demonstrate the hospitality-industry software she sells, and it has saved her time, money, and disruption to her family life. And yet, “When I do go onsite, we close,” says Legum, who works from her home in Fairfax, Virginia.

When Legum walks into an office or conference room, she says, she can quickly determine where to focus her energy. She can identify the cheerleaders, the naysayers, and the influencers. “You can immediately see that when you see their faces and their reactions. It could be something as simple as the way they shake your hand,” she says. “These are things you totally miss when you’re on GoToMeeting or Webex.”

In the room, Legum has an important tool a remote conference can’t offer: eye contact. When we communicate over Skype or Google Hangouts, we see the other party, but we can’t look at them directly unless we address the camera over the screen—which means we can’t see them.

That’s a significant loss because appropriate eye contact—that is, not a creepy, intrusive stare—boosts our opinion of one another, making us seem more trustworthy, honest, attractive, competent, warm and socially capable, says psychologist Jari Hietanen of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Tampere University in Finland. “When we’re in eye contact we tell each other, ‘My focus is on you and my communicative channels are open and we can start to interact,’” he says.

What appears to matter most is that we feel seen—literally. In a recent study, Hietanen’s team had participants look through a liquid-crystal window at a model, who alternately averted her gaze or looked at the participants directly. Some of the participants were told the model they saw could also see them, while others were falsely told the model could not. The results astonished the team. When participants knew the model could see them, their direct gaze triggered a physiological response: They became more energized and engaged. When participants thought the model couldn’t see them, the direct gaze had no effect. “I think that’s pretty nice evidence that the important thing is whether the perceiver thinks, I am being seen by the other person,” Hietanen says.

In another recent study, by Norihiro Sadato at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Okazaki, Japan, pairs of participants viewed each other online in a real-time “live” or a 20-second delay “replay” condition, with the researchers alternating the conditions. They found that participants’ eye blinks were more synchronized in the live condition. This means the participants were paying attention to each other and responsive to each other, but the time delays common to video-conference disrupted their sense of attunement. When speaking to a partner, we predict their response, but that prediction is optimized for real-time interaction. “The delay in video transfer is noticed as the prediction error that makes me irritated,” Sadato wrote in an email.

The Power of Presence 

Baji Grace runs business and personal-growth workshops in locales like Bali and Italy, work that until this year involved significant time in airports and on Skype. She has always understood the value of meeting in person, despite the high cost of international travel, and believes that an initial in-person meeting can protect a relationship even through later online turmoil. When Grace first met her marketing manager, for example, she found the French native extremely gracious and warm. At an organic bakery, the woman hugged her and took her order, returning with coffee and croissants. “She was beautiful, charming, and kind,” Grace says.

Once their relationship went online, though, things changed. When the team was planning several events on a tight timeline, the manager’s tone was brusque—long lists of demands, punishing deadlines, and significant ire when they weren’t met. “She pulled it off,” Grace says, “so kudos to her. But I would not have been able to receive that level of intensity if I hadn’t met her first and liked her.”

Grace was able to sustain herself through that difficult period with the manager because they had already bonded and created a mutual sense of trust, which Dunbar says is extremely difficult to do unless you’ve met face-to-face. “Almost all the mechanisms we use for creating bonded relationships involve either physical contact or being with them and being able to see the whites of their eyes,” he says.

The fact that the two women had hugged likely also had an effect on their connection. “In terms of understanding how somebody really feels about you, a touch is worth a thousand words,” Dunbar says. “The way they touch you when they stroke your back or put a hand on your shoulder tells you much more about the relationship than anything they could say.”

How We Bond

When New York City real estate broker Jonathan Tootell had to stop shaking hands with clients and business associates, he quickly noticed how jarring it was for everyone involved. “You instinctively go in for the handshake or maybe a bro hug, and you could almost see both parties stopping themselves midway into it,” he says. “The handshake is the opening of the conversation, so to just stare at each and say, ‘We’re not going to touch,’ was awkward, though it was the right thing to do.”

Tootell was interested to see how quickly the business community adapted to elbow-bumping. “It was better than nothing,” he says. “Doing nothing just felt weird.”

Alex Dupeux, used with permission.
Alex Dupeux, used with permission.

The adoption of the elbow-bump speaks to how strongly our bodies yearn to connect. Touching triggers endorphins, though outside of the light contact of a handshake or backslap we restrict our stroking and cuddling to a limited few. That’s why, Dunbar says, humans found other ways to bond, such as singing, dancing, laughing, storytelling, and feasting.

Singing, he suggests, is one of the most effective ways we bond. “It can turn complete strangers into best buddies after an hour in an informal choir. It’s really remarkable,” Dunbar says. And this “icebreaker effect” seems to scale up almost indefinitely. “We’ve done it with choirs of 200 people who are effectively strangers, and they get just as much out of it as a group of 10.”

Dinner and a funny movie will also work. Dunbar says people are more generous with each other after laughing together and more bonded after sharing a meal. When people meet for a celebratory dinner, he says, they do many things that trigger the endorphin system, such as laughing, drinking alcohol, and overeating. (Indigestion sets off endorphins, too.) “You’ll also almost certainly do some kind of reminiscing, which will probably include emotional storytelling,” he says.

Online and Out of Touch

Another difference between digital and in-person communication is the quality of the conversation. When you meet a good friend for dinner, you reveal yourselves to each other in a deeper way than you would digitally. “True intimacy grows when people share not only the good things in their lives but also the things they feel bad about, and the person they’re talking to responds empathetically and matches that bid for intimacy,” says University of Pennsylvania psychologist Melissa Hunt.

Group texts and social-media feeds have traditionally not been able to do that, so it’s no surprise that there is a strong link between digital communication and loneliness. A University of Pittsburgh study of people aged 19 to 32 found that the more subjects used social media, the more likely they were to feel isolated.

In her research, Hunt found that undergraduates who cut their social media diet down to about 30 minutes a day saw a significant decline in loneliness and depression after just three weeks. In anecdotal surveys, those students said they spent more time on schoolwork and hanging out with friends in real life and that the quality of the time they spent with others was substantially improved. “They were more present and engaged with other people,” Hunt says, “and that probably had a big effect on loneliness.”

Naturally, then, being forced to stay in their homes and away from restaurants and coffee shops took a psychic toll on the population. “Like all primates, we are a very social species, which means we find being confined in a small space with a limited number of people irksome,” Dunbar says. “Of course, some people are less social than others and are able to tolerate isolation more easily. But for most of us, it quickly gives rise to loneliness.” Dunbar’s late colleague, John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, argued that loneliness should be considered a natural process, akin to hunger or thirst. “It’s an evolutionary signal that all is not right and we should get out and do something about it,” Dunbar says.

Used appropriately, technology can fill some of the void, though the research results are mixed. Alan Teo, a psychiatrist at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine, found that the frequency of in-person contact with friends and family predicted a lower risk of subsequent depression in adults aged 50 and older, whereas email and phone contact had no discernable impact. However, he says that when in-person contact is not possible, video chat can be the next best thing. In another study, Teo found that Skype use among older adults was associated with a lower risk of depression, while text-based communication was not. People in self-isolation or in quarantine around the world reported that they were buoyed by the ability to have virtual card games, chats, and playdates for kids, even though they were no substitute for in-person meetings.

The Loose Ties That Bind

Last February, Michelle Fiordaliso was on a New York City subway platform when she saw a young man carrying a bouquet of flowers. She asked who they were for. His girlfriend, he said. Special occasion? No, just because. “We had a nice moment where I acknowledged that it was really beautiful that he was bringing his girlfriend flowers for no special occasion,” Fiordaliso says.

Fiordaliso has always sought out these kinds of connections, and thinks that many of us underestimate what we lose by keeping our heads buried in our phones. She was heartened when, after her Long Island town was ordered to socially distance, the neighbors she passed on a run seemed more connected—waving, saying hello—than they had been before.

The neighbors were fulfilling that fundamental need underscored by Hietanen’s research—telling each other, “I see you.” After a bad breakup years ago, Fiordaliso was crying on a bus bench, trying to collect herself, when a stranger offered to sit beside her and put her arm around her. “I think it was important for both of us. I got to be on the receiving end of her compassion, and she got to express her compassion,” she says.

Alex Dupeux, used with permission.
Alex Dupeux, used with permission.

When we move through the world with a level-headed gaze, we see others and feel responsible for those in distress. In our digital lives, it’s easier to turn away, but each time we do, we risk losing our capacity for empathy. “Empathy is something people develop over time, because it takes a lot out of you,” says Turkle. “It requires a capacity for listening. It requires a capacity for attention. It requires a kind of moral capacity because something difficult might be required of you. I believe this ability is really what defines us as human because it’s the basis for the relationships that matter, for relationships that are not transactional.”

During the outbreak, some people have hoarded Purell and packed into crowded bars, but Simon-Thomas notes that many others have found an invigorated sense of responsibility for one another and worked for the greater good—canceling vacation plans, shopping for elderly neighbors, and cloistering themselves inside even though they weren’t personally at high risk. Such actions may not involve physical contact, but they’re a highly significant form of connection. “We can all feel a sense of gratitude for the fact that we’re all doing this together,” Simon-Thomas says. “We’re doing our best to address this pretty profound threat in a way that’s cooperative and collective.”

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