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Why face-to-face still matters!


We email. We wiki. We blog. We IM. We convince ourselves that as long as we can write well, these are all good forms of communication. Perhaps in some ways even better, since we're not distracted (blinded, biased, seduced) by the person's physical presence.

And we are wrong.

According to the neuroscientists, anyway. I've just come back from a couple of days at the Conference on World Affairs, and attended a couple of different presentations where Dr. Thomas Lewis spoke. He has a particular interest in neurobiology (including the neurobiology of love), and what the brain does and does not want and need.

One of the key points he made was that we are fooling ourselves into thinking that text is even half as effective as face-to-face at communicating a message. He rattled off a ton of studies and evidence, but I was too engrossed in the topic to take many notes, so I don't have references to most of them.

We all are aware of the notion that most of the information we get in a face-to-face communication is NOT from the words themselves, but rather from body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. What he finds troubling, though, is how we trick ourselves into thinking that (especially with all our text messaging tech) face-to-face is overrated. How we trick ourselves into thinking that we can truly know someone and experience real communication through text alone.

Although his explanation dove into the chemistry of face-to-face, LIVE interaction with another human vs. any other form of communication, one point was quite simple:

We never had to learn to process body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. We evolved this capability...it's innate. But we had to spend years learning to read and write with any level of sophistication. The brain needs and expects these other--more significant--channels of information, and when they don't come... the brain suffers (and so does the communication). And the problem goes way beyond just an increased chance for misinterpretation.

Of course someone brought up smileys and winkies, etc. and he just gave us that "do you honestly believe that's somehow going to communicate anything remotely approximating subtle emotions?"

Part of the issue they've discovered in research is just how crucial the immediate response is. In still-face effect experiements with infants, for example, they learned that babies become immediately distressed when their mother maintains a "still face" that does not show any response/feedback with what the baby is doing. This makes sense, but what's really interesting is when they experimented with video. In some of these variations on the still-face effect, mothers and babies were on closed-circuit monitors where they could each see each other in real-time, through a television monitor. The babies were much happier when their mother's face was responsive to their own... less distressed than when the mother was right in front of the baby but maintaining a still face!

So, it was the responsiveness that mattered as well as the visual information. But just how quick does the feedback/response need to be? When they took the same experiment but introduced a short delay (I can't recall the amount -- but it was less than a few seconds), the babies became distressed again. Even a small degree of latency killed the feedback/interaction/responsiveness the baby's brains were expecting and needing.

Of course, we're adults, and not babies, but again--Dr. Lewis pointed out that we still have the same basic neurochemistry, and that no matter how much we practice communicating through text, the brain still finds it stressful. He indicated that the only population whose lives have improved through the use of text over face-to-face are those with a serious problem of shyness. In the brains of the shy, he said, a previously unknown face triggers a fear or anxiety response in their amygdala which doesn't happen in text.

He said that video chat is better than any other form of non face-to-face, because you get facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, AND real-time responsiveness. But--he said there's still a very unsettling feature for the brain because there's really no way for BOTH speakers to make eye contact! If you look at the camera, then the other person sees you looking at them, but then your experience suffers. So you can either watch the person you're chatting withwhich helps your experience but causes theirs to sufffer (since you won't be looking into the camera, so to THEM you'll be looking down), OR you can look in the camera and improve their experience. But there's no way to have the camera right in your face, in a place where you can still look into the other person's eyes. Bottom line: You can see the camera or the person's eyes... but not both.

And even with the benefits of adding video to your chat, there's still a lot the scientists don't know about other factors surrounding human communication that can't be captured electronically. Smell, for example, might be far more powerful than we realize--even when below our conscious awareness...

This is just a small taste of the things he talked about, but I wanted to get it down while it was still fresh.

So, what to do if you're like me and work mostly remote from co-workers? Using AV chat is a HUGE improvement for the reasons I listed. But there's no substitution for face-to-face... so anything you can do to try to interact with people IN PERSON is critical. Even if it's just a once a year meeting, the very fact that you've had a chance to see and hear that person and experience them in front of you goes a long way toward helping you when you get back to your remote office and return to text.

But there's more--he stressed that having face-to-face interaction is so crucial to the brain that even if you can't do face-to-face with your co-workers, we should all try to make sure we have a healthy amount of live social interaction. So, join a local user group. Spend more time with friends. Attend conferences. And--he stressed most of all--stop watching television. (more on that in another post, but part of it has to do with the way having television on tricks one part of your brain into thinking you're having a social interaction--all these people having conversations in your living room--but fails to give the brain what it expects and needs from that interaction.

I'll say more tomorrow, but for now I want to add that I'm thrilled to have met many of you in person at conferences and other events, and I'm hoping I'll have a chance one day to meet more of you. For now, you'll just have to trust that I have a smile on my face as I type this : )

[And photos of your face help too, so if you dare (and circumstances permit), you should post a picture of your face somewhere and make sure people have it. Ask the person you're emailing with if you can send a photo so they "know who they're talking to" a little better, and ask if they'll do the same. More on other tips a little later...]

Posted by Kathy on April 13, 2006 | Permalink


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It also happens that when you are talking/chatting during some months with someone and then you first meet, the mental image that you stored in your mind while chatting is totally different with the real person.

This also a consequence of chat/mail communication.

Posted by: kirai | Apr 14, 2006 12:02:49 AM

Of course. Makes perfect human sense!

This also explains a bit why I refuse to do business with a company whose profile does not describe the leaders (as people). Everyone has seen these company descriptions: "XYZ Company has its clients' needs forefront and is forward-thinking" yada yada yada; if a company doesn't tell me that there are humans behind the profile, I will surf away from the page. Additionally, it also explains why I am instantly uncomfortable if someone does not sign an email -- whether it's from a friend or a colleague.

If there's no person behind these communiques, it's not communication. It's information -- and not good at that.

Having a long-distance relationship is very hard. I have one. I rely on many things to trick my brain into having the intimacy required from full-face relating.

Posted by: Lauren | Apr 14, 2006 6:46:11 AM

Great article! Thanks!

Posted by: David Porter | Apr 14, 2006 6:48:50 AM

Guess I'll have to start using "a/s/l/p" now, hunh? ;-)

Posted by: Sean Montgomery | Apr 14, 2006 8:54:29 AM

I'm always careful to point out (to clients, readers, peers, co-workers, whoever) that these tools are not for replacing or even reducing face time. What they SHOULD do, however, is make that actual face time far more productive and invigorating.

Posted by: kris | Apr 14, 2006 9:11:46 AM

I totally agree that for some kinds of communication face-to-face is unquestionably the best, most enjoyable, most productive and most efficient means of moving data/ideas and making decisions. But I think people get confused with all the choices they have (phone, face to face, email, im etc.) and often pick the wrong tool for the type of information they need to move. I had a really busy day yesterday and for some reason it was "Phone or Wander by Dan's Desk For a Chat at a Bad Time day". And in the case of every item people wanted to phone/chat (in person) to me about the task could have been adequately, or better handled in e-mail. (one prerson brought cookies - that was OK).

Now you might take from this that I'm anti-social (... I didn't used to be, but I'm getting there...) but for me working in a largely support/service role there is a huge advantage to me being able to manage my incoming tasks and move back and forth between them as their states change (... and no I'm not saying I'm a good multitasker! ) But when someone insists on phoneing/meeting/chatting it can (as with any task/context switch) totally gut my productivity. In many many cases the asynchronous aspect of email, IM or issue tracking software is a real time management bonus for me.

When I have a choice between two more-or-less equal priority tasks and TASK A is there in an email completely speced out and TASK B involves phoning some guy on the other side of the continent who turns out to not really know anything and is actually some project manager who had lunch with the manager of the person with the other company who wrote some code that they have put on an ftp server for me to pick up, but they aren't really clear what ftp server it is, or where the code is on the ftp server or if i need a user id/password to get to it or maybe they'll just email me a different version and if I get version 1 I should load this data first, but if it's version 2 disable these constraints and then try loading the data in a different order or talk to some other guy who has a different script, is it a nice day where you are? and what's the fishing like in your part of the country anyway? blah blah blah ... and 80% of the time they aren't at their desk so I'm going to have to leave voice mail so they an interrupt me later etc. etc. etc. - I'm probably going to deal with the email based one first, and put off the annoying phone call.

So I'm not downplaying the importance of face-to-face communications and I actually don't mind talking to people about the weather and fishing where I live but I am saying people need to be aware of the full spectrum of communications mechanisms available to them and understand when to pick the appropriate tool, be it face-to-face, trained delivery monkey (that would be cool), yellow stickies in the middle of your monitor when you return from lunch, whatever.

Thanks, Kathy for another great post!

Posted by: Dan | Apr 14, 2006 9:37:16 AM

I've never been able to articulate why I'm so much more comfortable with face-to-face meetings than AIM or email but this makes perfect sense.

How does this all apply to phone conversations where you get some cues (tone of voice, rate of speaking, volume, etc.) but lack the facial cues? It seems to me that it fits in the innate/synchronous side of things but just not has high as face-to-face.

Thanks again for another great post and insight.

Posted by: Bryan Monroe | Apr 14, 2006 9:44:28 AM

It all comes back to basics, people do business with people they know (i.e. trust) and you can't "know" someone unless you get to the personal, upfront level.

We found that women are chosing to do business with women because of their "culture." Women return phone calls and emails, they chat/send letters/listen and give back some of the energy that they give out. All of those things feed into a trusted relationship.

Posted by: Mary Hunt | Apr 14, 2006 9:59:43 AM

When I made the switch from developer to product manager, I assumed somewhat naively that web meetings and conference calls would be sufficient for 80% of my activity. The correct figure turned out to be about 50%. Especially for those of us who are passionate about what we do, there is no substitute for being in front of people. I am equally comfortable behind a phone line or webmeeting, but in the end, the personal interactions are what I enjoy and find to be the most effective. (All this from someone who loves working virtually)

Posted by: Deepak | Apr 14, 2006 10:16:49 AM

When meet face to face, one could check how spontaneous other one is along with body language etc. One can see how confident a person in real life as in online meets people could be good in expressing their views but when it come to articulate something they have difficulty.
Technologies could be advance but there is kind of thin curtain while in face-to face meet there is transparency.

Posted by: Paavani | Apr 14, 2006 10:40:48 AM

Thank you so much for sharing what you learned. I thought this post was so interesting and I am really looking forward to reading your post on the affect that television has on us.

Posted by: Mollie | Apr 14, 2006 10:42:07 AM

Regarding the impact of TV...If you haven't already done so, read "The Plug in Drug". This book had a profound impact on my view of TV.

Posted by: Mike Smedberg | Apr 14, 2006 11:49:52 AM

"the only population whose lives have improved through the use of text over face-to-face are those with a serious problem of shyness."

I found this statement to be completely ridiculous and biased in support of the author's own research. Text based communication has many good things about it: greater efficiency in consumption of information, ability to communicate to very large numbers of people across time and distance, ability to be preserved over time, etc. Each type of communication has its benefits and its drawbacks.

After I read this post I went to a long meeting where a lot of people got off topic and droned on endlessly about their own stories and own lives (you've all had those meetings). I just wanted them to cut to the chase and tell me what I wanted to know. As I was sitting there, bored out of my mind and growing increasingly impatient, I wished that I could just click my mouse button and scroll past the boring stuff until I found something that interested me.

If I don't want to read through someone's text based communication I don't have to. If you're in the room with them and their talking about something you don't want to listen to, it always comes across as rude when you just walk away and start a conversation with someone else. At least I always thought so when girls used to do that to me back in my dating days:) <-- indicates tongue in cheek humor, not completely serious but with a grain of truth, but you wouldn't be able to tell unless you saw my face according to the author of the study

Posted by: Dave | Apr 14, 2006 4:45:05 PM

I think you can have an IM/chat/email-based dialog going on once you’ve established the face-to-face, either with new business opportunities or old friends. And it’s because of those older established relationships with friends that I see actual face-to-face meetings become more special.

Dave had a pretty funny insight regarding meetings and about 'cutting to the chase.' That separation of two people by time and space builds anticipation you wouldn't have if those same people saw each other every single day in an office.

There are a few big changes I see as our society becomes more tech-literate though:

The first is a negative one. Our whole culture has become so sped up, so time-compressed, that if we aren't multi-tasking by reading a blog while IM’ing a friend with the TV on, we feel unproductive.

And with that compression of time we’ve also compressed our language skills online. Look at how chat lingo has crept into everything: posts on most blogs have ;-) or LOL. Even mainstream advertising is now picking up on abbreviations for LOL comedies!

The problem is though, the poor grammar doesn’t stop at the IM or chat border. It’s found in many cover letters I've seen by students, or regular emails. Punctuation? What's that? u no what i mean

This generation of teens will be the first to have the poorest grammer skills I have ever seen even though this shorthand has allowed them to ‘talk’ to each other quicker than we ever did with ‘cool’ and ‘groovy.’

The other two changes I see though are positive:

First, the proliferation of new ways of communicating, be it through a blog or chat or IM, has democraticized the process of getting your message out. If you wanted to talk to someone around the world years ago, you were either a ham radio operator or you had big international phone bills. Now all you need is a free blog.

Secondly, the process of posting in forums or blogs has aided civility. If two people who disagree go a talk show these days, both sides erupt into a shouting match and nobody gets heard.

Online though, you post, there’s a delay while the other reads and reacts, then writes their post in return. You may not get their tone of voice, (hence the smiley to chill people out), but at least both sides can ‘see’ the other's POV: it’s spelled out right in front of them for all to see without a talkshow host getting a chair across the head.

Posted by: makethelogobigger | Apr 14, 2006 6:07:03 PM

Dude, what kind of a-hole goes around stressing babies for a living? ;P

Posted by: Samuel deHuszar Allen | Apr 15, 2006 1:20:39 PM

You left a gap in your article between text chat and video. Audio is a significant improvement over text interaction, and I find when working collaboratively with someone I'm familiar with, my brain fills in some of the body language just from the audio clues. Its also fun to have a skype session going with someone in the office, and be able to pickup all the other background noise going on (people coming out of the conference room, managers walking around and checking in, etc.)

Maybe the next big thing in video cams will be two way devices with a small 320x240 lcd display behind a one way mirror so that you stare at the screen/camera at the same time. I remember reading ancient papers about experiments done in two way interaction using video systems setup this way.

Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, in computer science we stand on each other's feet. -- Hal Ableson

Posted by: woolstar | Apr 16, 2006 1:21:35 AM

I normally work 100% remote from my other team members, and I spend at least 40% of my time working collaboratively with one or more team members. I have a couple of thoughts on this.

Don't discount the phone. There is a lot of non-verbal communication in a phone conversation. Video conferencing tools still have poor resolution and frame rate. I don't know how you really see expressions in typical video chat technologies. I find ordinary video conference tools to border on useless, because you can't whiteboard, etc. The camera will not pick it up. A virtual whiteboard is a more useful tool. A video talking head helps, in a conversation. In a lecture or presentation, it offers little.

The other thing which needs to be studied is the effectiveness of remote meeting mechanisms after a face to face meeting has occured. My guess is it is much better. The in person meetings need to occur at the right places. An in-person kick-off event is useful. Also, final decision making events are best done in person.

Regarding text, text is useful for providing specific, detailed information. Stats, specs, etc. It is good for supporting ideas, more than communicating ideas. As a perfect example, newspapers (text) were never obsoleted by radio or television news. Radio drama was obsolted by television.

Of course, Dr. Lewis' studies are not new, as non-verbal communication has been studied for decades. I know AT&T did related studies in the 1960s and 1970s to determine the viability of video telephones. Over 15 years ago I assisted a management professor with some research in the area of in-person, non-verbal communication. And the verbal vs. non-verbal, an in-person vs. not in-person forms of communication have been studied for years.

What I believe needs to be studied is the nature, emotion, and content of textual communication. There is a rawness in textual communication which could spill over to verbal and in-person communication. Is it happening?

Posted by: Mark | Apr 16, 2006 3:13:56 PM

As a relative newcomer to the blogosphere, I find this post, links, comments especially interesting. I have been pondering many of the issues herein, wanting to make certain the subtleties of my humor are conveyed accurately so the reader can be certain to interpret them as intended. This may require a difference in presentation from reader to reader.

As with face-to-face encounters, significant differences are present in communication and language between business and personal exchanges. A mixture of the two requires extra care in both computer communication and traditional handwriting (if anyone does that any more,)
but there are some parallels.

Differing neurological connections, emotional centers and their different network of sources, are informing communication via the computer vs in-person interactions.

Just find this all so fascinating within the context of what I find myself experiencing, trying to more clearly understand.

Posted by: joared | Apr 16, 2006 3:39:27 PM

I agree with your message, but feel the issue can become polarized to the point of saying text is always bad, and face-to-face is always better.

There are usually two main goals in communication, to convey information and/or social interaction. It needs to be emphasized that the messenger is more critical than the medium used. Many times, an instructor in a classroom is not able to explain to the students in front of them the concepts being taught. But, when reading relevant books on the subject, some well chosen words are able to articulate those ideas more clearly.

Great writers are great because they are able to go beyond the cold medium of text and make the reader not only feel they are face-to face with the writer, but can actually feel the writer’s emotions. Such as the following quote, from Thieves: A Novel of Katherine
Mansfield, by Janice Kulyk Keefer.

“And because all she wants is to be with them, to be like them, and because she knows already that she never can, she looks round for something to take from them, some way to hurt them into understanding.”

In face-to-face social interactions, sometimes conversations are so emotionally charged that the message is not being heard. Recently, my husband was not hearing what I was trying to say. He was biased, because I was the messenger, and not listening because he thought he already knew what I would say and how I felt. Out of frustration, I wrote him an email. Reading my message, separate from any emotional prejudice, he was finally able to understand and we could further continue the discussion in person. With a very happy conclusion, I might add.

Any craftsman knows the key to producing quality work is using specialized instruments for different situations. In our one-size fits all mentality, where we want one tool for all situations, we need to remember there is not just one solution.

Posted by: Mary-Anne | Apr 17, 2006 6:40:29 AM

Here's a striking fact. One of my large clients was a large retirement benefits fund. It discovered that if its members attended one of its pre-retirement seminars, it retained about 70% of their money in its post retirement investment products. For members who didn't attend, the figure was about 5%.

This is partly because members who go somewhere else for their advice will be presented with that other person's favourite list of products, and retirement is complex, so it is difficult to disagree with your advisor.

But anecdotal evidence in this industry makes it clear that loyalty has a lot to do with the personal chemistry of interacting with people, rather than with websites, brochures. etc.

Posted by: Dermot | Apr 17, 2006 5:05:34 PM

Thanks again everyone. I can definitely see at least two HUGE problems with my post:

1) Dave makes an excellent point -- I was mixing up way too many contexts without making distinctions. Lewis' point about text being a benefit for severely shy people was in regard to social contact with new people (in fact, I think he was largely talking about the potential for online dating!) And there are indeed so many areas where we *do* benefit greatly from text--especially when we want to be productive. So yes, this isn't about face-to-face for *everything*, but I guess my point was more about how we tend to overlook just how important face-to-face IS, and that we shouldn't assume that (depending on what we're trying to communicate or learn from someone else) a text representation is giving us the whole story. But I think of all the times where there is NOT anything more to the story, and where the overhead of having to do face-to-face is absurd.

2) Bryan Monroe was the first to bring up the fact that I left out the PHONE! I can't believe I didn't put it in there--just my mistake. It definitely belongs in the synchrous and somewhat innate category, although not with the strength of video conference or face-to-face. But tone of voice beats text-only in a big way.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Apr 18, 2006 11:19:29 AM

Interesting post. The post seems to successfully argue that face-toface still matters. Can anyone point me to articles, posts, etc that argue that face-to-face does NOT matter?

Posted by: pablo | Apr 18, 2006 12:09:56 PM



The link above is a post I recently made about recruiting, face-to-face meetings and Herb Greenberg, CEO of Caliper, a human resource consulting firm. Herb has been blind since birth and uses his non-visual communication skills to help companies and professional sports teams make decisions on hiring people. There is an interesting article in HBR that my post links through to although, you will have to pay to get it. The key points are that face-to-face meetings are great but if you don't ask the right questions it won't matter if are sitting in the other person's lap you probably won't have a meaningful conversation (or interview). Although this is not an argument that face to face is less important. But that ineffective questions and using visual cues to make decisions or drive your questioning will not lead to a more meaningful interaction.

Posted by: Steven Kempton | Apr 18, 2006 11:09:03 PM

Your last paragraph suggests the people over at http://www.email2face.com are on to something! (I've already bugged them to get a prominent privacy/nospam policy posted).

Posted by: Joshua Flanagan | Apr 20, 2006 5:33:27 AM

One thing that does not make sense is that the study is on infants, and when asked the researcher said the circuitry is "basically the same". Well, if it is, how come that infants can't speak? They can't speak because they can't process language (yet), and that's why they have to rely on facial expressions. Extending these findings to adults is bogus.

Posted by: Rosanna Tarsiero | Apr 20, 2006 2:42:54 PM

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