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Ana Nogales, Ph.D.

Facebook versus Face-to-Face

What’s missing when friends connect online?

The social network phenomenon gained even greater prominence in our collective psyche this month due to the new movie, The Social Network, which chronicles the origins of Facebook on the Harvard campus. Having now spread far beyond the realm of college students to include people of all ages in countries throughout the world, Facebook and other social networking sites represent a new way of connecting with friends, colleagues, acquaintances, friends-of-friends, and even people we don't know who want to ‘friend' us via the internet.

But when we communicate online, whether it's on Facebook or through email, or when we tweet or text, what's missing? What specific elements do we miss out on when we trade face-to-face communication for connecting through our computer or blackberry? It may seem obvious to some, but I think we tend to forget about the importance of body language, voice inflection, and the simple act of looking someone in the eye during a conversation. Granted, technologies such as Skype can provide us with the screen image of the person to whom we're talking. But is eye contact as palpable on a screen as it is in person? And how ‘undivided' is our attention when we're reading someone's email message, as opposed to when we're sitting across a table from them? Can a text message convey the nuance of a facial expression?

I've suggested that my clients try this exercise, which demonstrates how important in-person factors are in communicating your true emotions. I have them speak the same sentence three times, each time expressing a different attitude or emotional tone. For example, if you have to break a date with a friend, you might say, ‘I'm sorry I couldn't make it but something else came up.' That sentence could be stated with frustration, sarcasm, or compassion. One could speak the words while smiling, scowling, or putting one's arm around the friend's shoulder. When clients try this simple exercise, they realize how the message changes depending on how the words are spoken and what gestures are used.

How to reconnect words to feelings? Fewer texts, less Facebook, and more face time.

- Dr. Ana Nogales