How Virtual Platforms Impact Our Experience of Social Relationships
If you’ve felt like your virtual meetings, or even the quality of your relationships with the participants, have seemed “different” than they did in person, you are not wrong. Researchers (Mehrabian, 1981) have long studied non-verbal communication and have determined that approximately 7% of our communication comes from the words we say; 38% comes from the tone of our voice; and 55% comes from our body language. Although there has been controversy regarding these exact ratios, one thing is for certain: how we are understood and how we understand others is based on much more than the words we speak.
There are a multitude of factors related to non-verbal communication that can be muddied in this current climate of expanded virtual platform use, changing our perception of the relationship and content we are experiencing. To name just a few, our gestures, or deliberate meanings that communicate intention without words, might be changed or not seen over virtual platforms. We are sometimes so focused on holding our computer, or seeing the screen, that we may alter our gestures. We also somehow seem more aware of not throwing our arms up in the air in frustration, like we might do in an in-person meeting. If you have recently said or heard “can you hear me now?!” on your virtual session, you are in that moment experiencing a stark contrast to the happenings of an in-person conversation.
Paralinguistics, which include tone of voice, loudness, inflections and pitch, can all be distorted on virtual platforms, as many people change these behaviors to be better heard or to compensate for faulty internet connections. Body language and posture can be impacted as well, as the sharing of household space has relegated many to take their professional calls in areas other than ergonomically correct office set-ups. Although personal space in conversations is often influenced by social norms, cultural expectations, situational factors, and level of familiarity, virtual platforms cut across these barriers, also changing our perceptions of these social relationships. Non-verbal disclosures like eye contact can been associated with honesty, although this can vary across cultures. And an increased rate of blinking and eye dilation have been correlated with us finding something physically attractive and to our liking. Although these behaviors can still be present over computer, screen light and other variables can confuse what is actually occurring.
Another important nonverbal behavior is touch. Although touch can be used to communicate affection, caring, familiarity and sympathy, touch can often be used to communicate both status and power, with high power-yielding individuals often more frequently invading the interpersonal space of lower-power yielding individuals (Wood, 2012). Through our virtual platforms, touch is obsolete. When we ponder some of the more difficult conversations we have previously had, whether they were personal or professional in nature, touch may certainly have been present.
As a psychologist, I have been using online platforms to hold virtual therapy sessions. Although I was previously able to see 10 patients in a row, face to face, I now struggle with fatigue to see just 4 patients in a row. I find that I have to focus more, as well as work harder to process non-verbal cues. Additionally, although I am normally quite comfortable with silence in sessions, I am no longer certain if the silence is because my patient is thinking and processing, or if we are experiencing a technological difficulty. In one study, researchers found that delays on phone or conferencing systems of even 1.2 seconds resulted in perceiving the respondent as less focused and friendly. These technological mishaps can also elicit anxiety on both ends of the conversation, causing participants to wonder if important components of the conversation were heard or missed.
Another factor that can change our experience of our relationships via social platforms is our anxiety about our appearance, as virtual sessions are close up, and a camera is hanging out in the corner like Big Brother, making us mindful of our every facial expression.
Virtual calls are not the norm for most of us, or at least not what we do exclusively. Each time we engage in the use of a virtual platform, it is a reminder of our loss of normalcy, and how things “are not the same” during this pandemic. We cannot help but carry this feeling over into our perception of our current circumstance or relationship.
Virtual happy hours with friends, funerals, work meetings, therapy sessions, peer hang outs and academic classes are all happening in the same forum, causing us to feel a lack of boundaries and distance. When we show up for a virtual meeting, we are merging all the aspects of our lives that used to be separate: work, friends and family, thus further contributing to our sense of fatigue, and lack of escape.