Online communication is a lifeline during pandemic, but lacks non-verbal cues: behavioural scientist

The way we communicate with people online versus in real life has always been very different in both positive and negative ways, but what does that mean for us now that nearly all of our socializing has become virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Juliana Schroeder says video conferencing still leaves out key elements like eye contact

UC Berkeley associate professor Juliana Schroeder encourages people to video chat with their friends instead of just texting them, as that helps communicate more non-verbal cues. (Shutterstock)

In this time of physical and social distancing, we've had to rethink everything, but perhaps most notably how we interact with friends, family and colleagues. 

Thanks to technology, we're able to move most of our interactions online, but that comes with its own set of possible problems.

"Online communications tend to lack more of those non-verbal cues that we think of as being really critical in communication," said behavioural scientist Juliana Schroeder. 

Schroeder, who is an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, recently co-wrote a paper examining how online encounters differ from offline encounters and identified four factors: fewer non-verbal cues, more anonymity, more opportunity to form new social ties and bolster weak ties, and wider dissemination of information. 

Here is part of her conversation with Spark host Nora Young.

Merely expressing the semantic contents of your opinions to another person doesn't fully encapsulate everything there is to know about that person, says behavioural scientist Juliana Schroeder. (Submitted)

Juliana, a lot of us have been communicating online a lot more because of the pandemic, and while it's a lifeline, it's not the same as being face-to-face. Overall, how do online and in-person communication differ?

Online communications tend to lack more of those non-verbal cues that we think of as being really critical in communication and for being able to understand the other person's mind — what's going on in their mind, their thoughts and their feelings — as well as to think of them fundamentally as sort of a thoughtful, feeling person, which we see as a key component of humanization.

So it turns out that merely expressing the contents — the semantic contents — of your opinions to another person, say via text, actually doesn't fully encapsulate everything there is to know about that person. 

A lot more of our interactions are moving to these online settings and the nice thing is that a lot of people are now using video conferencing technology, so that does put a lot more of the non-verbals into the communication, but there's still some key stuff being left out. 

Eye contact is another thing that you lose in a lot of the video conferencing technologies, which makes coordination quite difficult. So it turns out eye contact has a very important role in being able to basically send signals to the other person very, very rapidly and quickly about what you're really thinking. 

Another one of the points that you talk about is anonymity online and the ability to just sort of browse passively without really engaging, which obviously we don't do face-to-face. So what are some of the impacts of that?

There's a big debate going on right now about the impact of social media, whether it is harming our well-being or whether it's improving our well-being. 

Active engagement means that you're writing messages to people, you're actually commenting, you're doing it in a non-anonymous way. So people know who it is that's commenting on them so that can actually start a real conversation. So it has communicative properties like an in-person interaction where the person knows who they're interacting with and they can write back to you.

But there's this other form of browsing, which is much more passive, which is that you can be anonymous on certain platforms. You don't need to really write comments in, maybe you could just give kind of likes, which are more on the passive side. 

So the finding is that the more active engagement increases well-being or is associated with increased well-being and the more passive types of engagement is associated with less well-being. 

These are what we call the parasocial relationships, where it's totally one-sided — like you're looking at just celebrity photos, and you're like their lives look so great — and you're not like having real engagement that's building your own social life, you're just sort of feeling envy.

We find ourselves in a situation where it is basically the only way you can talk to most of the people in your life and most of the people you work with. So, based on this research, do you have some suggestions on what this means for how we should stay connected online during the pandemic in ways that are healthy and productive?

I would certainly encourage people to, rather than just texting their friends, actually get on Zoom calls with them. Keep the video on. 

So even though being able to see the person doesn't actually give you more insight into what's going on in their mind, it does let you sort of feel like you've connected with them, just do the visual component. 

In terms of going on social media, I'd say, you know, keep more of the active browsing rather than the passive browsing. So actually engaging with people, commenting on their posts in a way that they can actually see so that they can comment back, so that you can start real interactions. 

And then in terms of those kinds of minimal social connections, I would encourage people during this time to really focus in on their closer connections and try to cement those and put in the work to maintain those and focus a little bit less on those, like, 2,000 people that may be on their Facebook.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Written by Alexandra Kazia. Interview with Juliana Schroeder produced by Nora Young.


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