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Empathy in an Online World

Cues and surroundings are vital to our ability to engage empathically.

Photo by fauxels from Pexels
Source: Photo by fauxels from Pexels

Whether we wanted to or not, 2020 forced us into new and uncomfortable situations. One of those was spending time relying on the virtual world, through our computers, phones, and tablets. Schools and many workplaces moved online. Basic needs like grocery shopping moved online. More tasks, activities, and socializing took place virtually from a distance. Looking for work moved online, as did medical appointments and interventions, and even the most intimate of interactions like being with a hospitalized loved one. The portions of our day-to-day lives that moved to the virtual world increased dramatically.

The online world is here to stay.

Even when the pandemic recedes, many of us will find that our time has permanently shifted. My niece got word from her company that they were downsizing and she and most of her coworkers would never return to a physical office. They would permanently work remotely. Some of these shifts will be helpful and beneficial – less commuting time, fewer cars on the road, and distant friends and relatives staying in touch virtually. These changes could have positive effects. But what do we lose?

There are costs to relying on virtual contact.

One cost I worry about is the difficulty in building deep personal interactions through online communication. Deep personal connections are foundational for empathy. Being empathic includes attention to and understanding of surroundings. When we communicate online we miss the contextual and extrasensory cues that we take in when we are with someone in person. The sigh or whisper or slight chuckle we pick up auditorily disappears online. The way others move into and out of a room and their body language are lost. The informal exchanges at work of passing in the hallway, sharing an elevator, and having lunch in a break room are all gone. Since the first job I ever had, I learned a lot about my coworkers from those serendipitous moments outside the formal workspace. Office jobs, outside work, entry-level, advanced employment — no matter the job, we all can benefit from the unscripted in-person moments with co-workers. How do we replicate that online? Or do we lose that and consider our approach to work and to our colleagues differently?

We already knew that there were positives and negatives to online communication before the pandemic.1 Positives include getting support, information, reducing isolation, and increasing connections, but the negatives include increasing isolation, judgmental social comparisons, and the loss of context.

Context is vital to our understanding of people; it is foundational for empathy. The important role of context covers three spheres: the intrapersonal, what we each bring as our personal disposition; the interpersonal that includes our interactions with family, peers, workplaces, and schools; and the environmental that includes how we move through our community and are affected by public policy.2 Replacing in-person contact with virtual exchanges shortchanges our interpersonal and environmental connections by diminishing our knowledge of context. How might we overcome this?

Building Context Online

Figuring out how best to work and live in the virtual world is a process that will undoubtedly take years to solve. In the meantime, here are some suggestions that might help overcome the loss of context in interpersonal and environmental interactions and as a result strengthen our connections:

  • Keep meetings small. Fewer faces to focus on keeps us better engaged.
  • Break up meetings with shorter times to actually be together as a group online and instead intersperse with one-on-one interactions.
  • Be direct about asking how others are feeling. Use one-on-one virtual contacts to be able to ask and share meaningfully.
  • Spend time sharing experiences; it builds context by tapping our affective imagining when we can’t have the real thing.
  • Check in more frequently between meetings and events using short phone calls to stay connected. This allows us to use a familiar and comfortable way to communicate.
  • Admit that virtual contact is not the same as being together in person so we do not have unrealistic expectations and are not disappointed.
  • Try to set up outside times to connect, both with others and with our surroundings. Being outdoors can give us a sense of broader context, which stimulates our empathic senses.

Use your creativity to build context virtually

The virtual world is here to stay. How might we enhance it? Try show and tell; sharing something that is not in the view of the camera that might be interesting or give more depth to who you are. I have shown my plants that I am growing, and I let my dog wander in and out if she wants to. I enjoy it when my young colleagues are interrupted by their children, and I encourage it. We need to be more attentive to our humanness when we lack the unconscious cues that we get through sharing in-person space and context.

Communicating online may make it more difficult to tap into context, but it is not impossible. Try to remember to pay attention to how we interact in the virtual world because we need to make up for the loss of taking in cues and surroundings. When we meet virtually, it won’t be the same as spending time together in person. However, we can still work to take in context, which will help us connect in meaningful ways.


Strange, C., Fisher, C. Howat, P. & Wood, L. (2018). ‘Easier to isolate yourself…there’s no need to leave the house’ – A qualitative study on the paradoxes of online communication for parents with young children. Computers in Human Behavior, 83, pp. 168-175.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1999). Measuring environment across the life span: Emerging methods and concepts. SL Friedman, TD Wachs, editors. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.

More from Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D.
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More from Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D.
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