Considering Social Interaction: Even Techies Meet Face-to-Face

April 7, 2010 / Business, Culture, Life, Tech / 33 Comments /
Last week, Gizmodo scooped a rare, public in-person meeting between Apple's Steve Jobs and Google's Eric Schmidt.
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As virtual communications inch closer and closer toward simulating real-world everyday interactions, even techies, it seems, prefer meeting face-to-face.

Gizmodo scooped a rare, public in-person meeting between Apple's Steve Jobs and Google's Eric Schmidt.

Last week, I was shocked to read Gizmodo’s scoop that Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt were spotted in person at a café in Palo Alto. As arguably two of the most ‘jacked in’ people in the world, I was intrigued that they would prefer to meet face-to-face for a conversation that could very well take place over GoogleTalk or iChat.

A couple days ago, I attended a Boston Ad Club event with foursquare‘s Dennis Crowley, during which Xconomy‘s Wade Roush interviewed him on the start-up’s meteoric growth and the rise of location-based social networking. Again, I was somewhat surprised that this type of interview — of a tech CEO by a tech writer — was conducted primarily, if not solely, in person.

Foursquare's Dennis Crowley is interviewed by Xconomy's Wade Roush on the rise of location-based social networking at a recent Boston Ad Club event (photo taken on my Blackberry).

As someone who currently works in the brand experience space, I’ve heard both my colleagues and others report that, with budget cuts and public scrutiny, many companies are committing their events budgets to the virtual world.

For some reason, though, there seems to be an intuitive, primitive inclination to have our most important meetings in-person — to see who we’re speaking to face-to-face. Why is that?

The Scientific Point-of-View on Face-to-Face Interaction

Of the innate desire for face-to-face social interactions, The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande notes the ground-breaking research of Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, with baby rhesus monkeys.

In the mid-1950s, Harlow began breeding his own monkeys to save money on experimental research. Raised in nurseries under conditions similar to human infants in contemporary hospitals, Harlow gave the monkeys food, warm blankets and toys, but isolated them from others to prevent the spread of infection. While physically healthy and, in fact, larger than their counterparts in the wild, the lab-bred monkeys were more than a bit off-kilter. They were prone to staring blankly ahead, rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively and mutilating themselves.

Wondering what was off with the rhesus (not to be mistaken with Reese’s) monkeys, Harlow and his graduate students tinkered with variables like diet, light exposure, and antibiotics. Then, one of Harlow’s researchers noticed how tightly the monkeys clung to their blankets, and Harlow contemplated whether the strange behavior was due to isolation from their mothers. So, he tried giving them artificial ones, and — long story, short — the baby monkeys became deeply attached to the most life-like of the fake mamma monkeys, though remained psychologically abnormal.

Harlow’s later studies that examined the effect of total isolation from birth found that released test monkeys

“…usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by… autistic self-clutching and rocking…One of six monkeys isolated for three months refused to eat after release and died five days later…Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially.”

Such monkeys were permanently withdrawn, social outcasts in monkey society,  and were victims of regular attack by wild monkeys.

Gawande further notes studies among neglected and orphaned children who sustained similarly deep and sustained damage. Results among adults — particularly, prison inmates and long-distance solo sailors — also seem to indicate a predisposition to long for in-person social interaction. It is no wonder, then, that astronauts are screened for their tolerance of long periods of isolation, though they have radio and video communication for social contact.

The Business Rationale of Face-to-Face Meetings

In his white paper “Why Face-to-Face Business Meetings Matter”, Prof. Richard Arvey of the National University of Singapore Business School describes why ‘computer-mediated processes’ simply don’t cut it for some types of communications:

“Group processes and outcomes that require coordination, consensus, timing, persuasion of others, etc. are less effectively accomplished using computer mediated communication modalities. Indeed, according to Straus and McGrath, the type of communication medium is likely to affect outcomes “when there is a need for the expression of emotions, when tasks require coordination and timing among members’ activities, when one is attempting to persuade others, or with task require consensus on issues that are affected by attitudes or values of the group members.” (Straus and McGrath, p. 163).”

More interestingly, Arvey explicates the advantages of face-to-face meetings:

“Face-to-face meetings allow members to engage in and observe verbal and non-verbal behavioral styles not captured in most computer mediated communication devises. There are nuances associated with hand gestures, voice quality and volume, facial expressions, and so forth that are simply not captured in email discussion, chat rooms, and the like. Even videoconferencing does not capture all of the dynamics of group members (e.g. the expression of others while one member is talking, etc.).”

Interestingly, Gizmodo applied analyses of these type of behavioral attributes to Jobs’ and Schmidt’s recent meeting (provided by Janine Driver, who has taught CIA and Scotland Yard members how to read body language).

Beyond body language, face-to-face meetings are important, Arvey avers, because

“…business meetings allow participants opportunities to develop important exchange relationships among themselves. These exchanges can be in the form of business negotiations, personal favors, promises, understandings, etc. that cannot often be achieved via other forms of communication because of their personal and informal nature. One psychological theory that emphasizes this notion is “social exchange theory” where human relations are viewed as an exchange of rewards
among individuals or achieving equity between “what you put in” compared to “what you get out” of relationships.”

Most salespersons will agree: face-to-face sales meetings, while costly and time-intensive, typically have the best results.

…..

To end, I’ll provide this brief excerpt from Atul Gawande’s beautifully written article in The New Yorker:

“Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Please feel free to leave your questions, comments and concerns below!

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33 Comments

  1. Derek Flanzraich

    April 10, 2010
    / Reply

    Thought-provoking post by my great friend @stevenduque on how humans require social interaction http://bit.ly/9MU34w

  2. Courtney

    April 15, 2010
    / Reply

    Steve --

    Interesting post!

    I would say it's clear that social interaction is a critical component -- if not the critical component -- of being human; however, it's fascinating to consider how technology has shifted the ways in which we express those social tendencies. As you allude to in your post, many people report preferring digital communication, because it's easier, because it's more convenient, and because it presents opportunities to interact in new and unique ways; but the other side to technological communication is that people use it because it's a way of expression that is uniquely removed from having to talk to a person face-to-face, and because it is a way to avoid elements of social awkwardness that come from talking to people in person. It's also commonly used as an escape from what are increasingly deemed as unnecessary face-to-face conversations -- why walk down the hall to a co-worker when you can simply send an e-mail?

    But I think it's intriguing to examine why, if social interactions are truly what is rewarding -- indeed, our brains are designed to respond more positively to human contact than they are to the radiating lights of our screens -- that we are increasingly turning to technology to communicate and mediate our interactions. (Despite Steve and Eric's coffee date, general trends are towards more and more communication taking place through technology.) In fact, we are, in many ways, increasingly choosing technology over real-life, more embodied interactions. One example of this is texting -- texting has become so much more popular than making phone calls precisely because people don't want to engage in real-time in an actual conversation. And this isn't simply for convenience sake; it's also because texting presents a type of communicating opportunity where one can take time to construct his or her response without being put on the spot like in a real-time conversation, and one in which the person can also be removed from the more 'involved' activity of speaking verbally of the phone. This may not pose a major problem for a run of the mill conversation, or quick, inane messages; but the amount of communication that is transacted via technology has increased so greatly that even major, emotionally significant conversations now take place via text message or e-mail. Consider the number of people who have "digital drama" in their relationships, and engage in emotionally loaded fights solely via text; or those who send an angry e-mail in a flurry of rage, one whose emotional content is likely overblown precisely because it is composed on e-mail, as a one-sided conversation, removed from having to hear the other person's responses or from having to see the physical and social cues that might cause you to choose your words more carefully. With an impassioned e-mail or text, there's no one there, looking you in the face and arguing the other side -- it's just you and your computer or cell phone, and your side of the argument, and the total absence of any social or physical cues that your brain is accustomed to going off of to determine and regulate your emotional state.

    Daniel Goleman talks about this phenomenon called "flaming" in his interview with Big Think (http://bigthink.com/ideas/14679), remarking that these moments of anger that cause people to communicate angrily and impulsively through technology occur uniquely because computers and cell phones remove the social cues that our brains are evolutionarily designed to read. "The human brain is designed for face-to-face interaction," he says. "It picks up thousands and thousands of cues in a split second, that tell us how to fine tune what we’re about to do to how the person is reacting to us right now. Online, there is no channel for this information. What happens in the brain is that those social cues inhibit our emotions, "Don’t do that, Do this." Online, they’re disinhibited. There’s no information coming in so our more our less desirable emotions can run rampant. And that’s the danger online. And I don’t think that the human brain really has adapted to what online life does to us." He's right: the nature of the conversation is completely different than it would be in person. Technology completely changes the interaction by replacing complex social cues with one-dimensional technological text. And the human brain has not yet adapted to it (though we are certainly in the process of seeing if it will).

    I think any person with common sense would realize that a face-to-face conversation is a more suitable and appropriate way to engage in these types of issues -- yet we are increasingly seeing people who opt for the convenience, emotional disconnect and digital-remove of their technological devices. And though we may understand the difference between face-to-face contact and online communication now (because most of us grew up before these technologies became so prominent), what about children who are being raised on texts and Facebook statuses? Goleman comments that "It’s like an experimented progress." He poses the question, "What does it going to mean for our children, who spend how many hours of their lives alone, staring at a video screen, instead of out playing with other kids? The brain is designed to be shaped by kids playing together, not by kids staring at a video monitor or online." I share his concern. They may learn new ways of relating to each other, but I think it's clear that online communication will never capture the more "elemental" social needs, as Gawande writes about, that come from the real thing. The question is whether this point will be lost on a generation that is raised knowing nothing else but the constant escape that technology provides.

    • Steven

      April 15, 2010
      / Reply

      Courtney --

      Thanks for reading the blog, the kind words, and the thoughtful response.

      I definitely agree with you that sociability is an integral part of being human--among other uniquely human behavior (e.g., self-reflectiveness/awareness). I think your insights about how technologies have affected communication are on point. I think, though, that what's most salient about the different preferences of communications media is the context or conditions under which a given set of communications take place. Certain functions of communication -- e.g., telling a co-worker a quick, useful tidbit of information -- require less face-to-face contact, whereas other types of communication -- e.g., going on a date or brokering a contentious deal -- are perhaps better staged in-person. In that light, virtual communications may have the side effect of distancing us from interpersonal interactions, but primarily serve as mode of increasing efficiency. I think texting is a great example of this. I've often told my mother, for instance, to just text me if I don't pick up my phone, to save me the time I'd spend listening to and deleting the voicemail. I also prefer texting, at times, because I can do other things while communicating.

      I definitely agree that many emotionally significant conversations take place virtually -- hell, even over gchat -- and that's probably a bad thing. Other technologies, however, have better enabled picking up traditionally in-person social cues -- e.g., video chatting. In general, though, I definitely agree that it's no substitute, and people tend to 'flame' when they can't be held accountable in person.

      I honestly have no clue what the implications of being more 'jacked in' will be for future generations. I have a hunch, though, that technology will shift even more toward our appreciation for the tactile and intuitive interactions that in-person communications provide. Innovations to this end are already well on their way. Apple's iPhone and iPad user interfaces make interactions with digital content more intuitive. Microsoft's Project Natal will soon allow users to capture their body movements and interact with a virtual world. HTC is releasing a phone this summer with videochatting capabilities on a 4G network. And augmented reality is enriching the way we look and interact with the real world. Generally speaking, there's a trend toward convergence between the digital and real world.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful response, Courtney!

  3. Courtney

    April 17, 2010
    / Reply

    Steve -

    Great points! Thanks for your response. Love this blog.

    Here are my thoughts: First, I totally agree with you that "virtual communications may have the side effect of distancing us from interpersonal interactions, but primarily serve as mode of increasing efficiency." My question is, is this a good thing? Obviously, it would be stupid to deny the benefits of being more efficient, but what I question is at what point it becomes detrimental to the quality of our lives to value efficiency over other values, such as personal and genuine engagement with others. Yes, it is more efficient for us all to have iPhones and Blackberrys that allow us to respond in seconds to work requests and essentially be accessible 24/7. Yes, it is faster and more convenient to have our parents text instead of call, especially for mundane issues. Yes, it is easier to order books over Amazon than it is to go to a bookstore, and easier to download music than it is to go to a (now non-existent) record store. But over time, if we start becoming more concerned with efficiency and convenience, where do we end up? We may end up in a society that functions hyper-productively and efficiently but where everyone is missing out on what primarily makes us human, i.e. genuine social interaction. And if the response is that people use technology to be more efficient in some contexts and areas of life (e.g. only work, or only non-important conversations) but are still able to genuinely engage in others -- I would argue that it's pretty hard for the two "modes" not to blend. Once we get used to communicating for work in quick, efficient responses, for example, we find ourselves responding to personal e-mail in a similar fashion...once we become accustomed to downloading books in seconds, we no longer want to drive all the way to the store, in person, to buy it.

    Second, I'm struck by your insight that technology is moving towards the convergence of the digital and real world -- you are totally right -- through augmented reality and things like the iPad and Project Natal (and 3D movies even, to use another example). Freaks me out a bit, to be honest. A ridiculous example that comes to mind is how CNN will "hologram" people into their studios to do interviews -- so Wolf Blitzer will be talking to a computer rendered, flickering version of Anderson Cooper. This solves the problem, in a sense, of the body-language issue addressed in your article by allowing for visual and physical cues (though doesn't satisfy tactile ones, obviously) -- but the question is really, how comfortable will we get with these sorts of augmented realities as substitutions for the real thing? Or more accurately, how comfortable should we get with them?

    Trends in gaming are interesting to consider -- much ink has been spilled (well, keys have been typed) about whether video games have increased violent behaviors in people who play them (Verdict? Yes they have. http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2003/10/anderson.aspx). What role does increasingly more realistic gaming environments play in this phenomenon? Video games from the 80s and 90s had horrible graphics and hardly any dimension (or meaningful narratives, for that matter -- did Donkey Kong have anywhere near the same kind of plot complexity that War of Warcraft has?). The space between real and virtual was large. But the games now, which increasingly model real life characters, war zones and physical and visual engagement (like first-person shooter games) are so much more immersive. And they will likely soon be in 3D, and will likely become more interactive like Wii or Project Natal-- these to me pose far greater problems precisely because they converge the digital with the real. Our brains are really not designed to do a good job distinguishing virtual environments from real ones, as many studies of virtual reality have shown. It's possible to induce vertigo, for example, in a flight simulation, or to get people to flinch at the sight of a cliff even if the cliff is virtual and not really there. So how will these virtually rendered realities -- this convergence of the digital and real world, as you said -- affect us? We are already taking the initial steps to blended realities, by these types of video games and even by things like video chatting and 3D movies, and I wonder if we should continue. The technology is so enticing, entertaining, engaging -- and as many in the gaming community exemplify, it may have a significant impact on how much time we end up spending "jacked in" to technologies and checked out from real life (or, as it pertains to your article, face-to-face interactions).

    Maybe these ideas are a bit off topic but really they are getting at the question of how much technology will intervene in and reshape how we relate to and interact with each other...which is who knows, perhaps what Steve and Eric were chatting about --face-to-face -- at their meeting :)

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      Buddy,

      Thanks for reading, and I hope you continue to follow the blog. You are, indeed, the first person to post on this article, I believe.

      Steven

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  26. Ian

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    There is nothing better than face-to-face contact. It may not always be the most efficient way (or even the best in every situation), but we are social creatures and social interaction of the real kind is still the best (and probably always will be).

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