We’re More Connected Than Ever, Here’s Why We Feel So Alone

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“It’s state of the art.” I was being ushered into half a conference room in Boston. The other half was in Denmark, at another branch office of the company I was consulting with. My assignment was to coach a half-dozen executives preparing for an important meeting at which they would all be speaking. These executives were spread around the world, some in the United States, some in Europe, and some in Asia.

This day, I was coaching one executive. She wouldn’t be back in the United States for a week or two, and it was important that she start rehearsing sooner than that. The solution was to put her in one-half of a conference room that showed up virtually in the US office where I was seated.

“It’s as good as being in the same room,” was the considered opinion of her administrative assistant, who was leading me into the windowless room that promised to deliver Denmark to me. “It’s state of the art.”

I sat down, as instructed, in a chair in front of a curved table that looked like part of an expensive business school auditorium. In front of me, instead of a stage and lectern, was a screen. On the screen was the mirror image of the room I was in—the same curved table, with chairs, and microphones in front of each chair.

It was like looking into a huge mirror. Only the half of the room inside the mirror was empty.

I wondered why she had told me not to stand. She left. In a minute or two, in walked the torso of what I presumed was my executive.

I glanced around the room and waited. The assistant whispered a few instructions. “Speak into the microphone. It’s voice activated. Tap it. Don’t stand up. And you don’t have to shout.”

I wondered why she had told me not to stand. She left. In a minute or two, in walked the torso of what I presumed was my executive.

Her head was cut off. I learned later that “state of the art” only allowed for a picture that covered people sitting in chairs. People of average height. Very tall people had to slump slightly in their chairs.

When she sat down, I could see her face.

“— you?” she said.

After a moment’s confusion, I realized that she must have asked me how I was. The voice-activated microphone had cut off the first words of her response.

I tapped the microphone and said, “(tap) I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”

The coaching conversation proceeded in a strange series of percussive sounds and overlapping comments. By the end of the session, we were shouting at each other. I wasn’t sure why. We could see each other well enough unless we stood up. We could hear each other, as long as we kept tapping the mic before speaking. Why did it feel like such hard work, and why did we end up shouting at each other? Why was an hour or two all we could sustain? What was so hard about something that looked almost like we were in the same room?

Does that mean that the digital world makes us stupider? Less able to concentrate? Less desirous of an emotional connection?

For most people, moving into the digital world to communicate means experiencing significant loss of clarity, ease, and depth. You struggle to convey the lightness of tone you want in an email, and you risk offending your colleague because the smile doesn’t come through. You tune out during an audio conference because some connection is missing and you can’t stay focused virtually for ninety minutes. You flounder to find the right sense of engagement on a Skype call. It’s a job interview, but the interviewer is calling in from her home office (as you are), and how does that change the dynamics of the interview? Are you at home or at work? Is the right tone more or less open, more or less formal, more or less sincere?

Over and over again, people find that they struggle when trying to communicate virtually. Something—a lot—is missing. It’s harder to get the nuances, the emotions, and the details right. Does that mean that the digital world makes us stupider? Less able to concentrate? Less desirous of an emotional connection? No, but it demands that we learn to behave differently.

We need to learn a new set of rules—like learning to communication in a new language. The virtual pushes us to invest in multiple different worlds, often simultaneously. These new worlds come with new, vague codes of conduct and create new needs.

A lot of work we used to take for granted, because it was done automatically by our unconscious minds in face-to-face communications, now has to be done consciously and intentionally. The digital world forces us to rewire our unconscious communication habits for conscious success.

And clearly, we urgently need to learn to avoid the traps of the digital world and its new forms of communications. For example, psychologists have identified a new phobia: nomophobia, the fear of trying to live without your cell phone. And yet, much research shows that as our digital engagement goes up, our personal sense of loneliness increases just as fast.

Why this perverse attachment to tools that are actually increasing our sense of detachment? We develop Facebook FOMO, Twitter envy, and LinkedIn loss. And we respond by diving more deeply into the very digital means of our discontent. The virtual water we drink simply makes us thirstier.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect With People in a Virtual World. Copyright 2018 Nick Morgan. All rights reserved.

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