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Perceptions of Communication Must Be Transforming

How COVID-19 could be causing a great awakening and evolution in our personal understanding

selective focus photo of man in brown button up shirt holding talking on the phone

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

In face to face conversations, we are at a distinct disadvantage. We see what is in front of us. What we don’t see though could actually be holding us back from some of the most important information in a conversation. Perhaps the flow of the following example conversation is familiar to you.

“I need to talk to you about something.” In that moment your mind begins to race as you try to think back to what you did that could have motivated this awkward exchange. “What could this possibly be about?” you wonder, as you strain to recollect anything out of the ordinary. “ok… what is this about?” you sheepishly respond, not really sure if you are in trouble.

“Remember we had talked about going on that trip in the fall… well since it doesn’t look like that will be possible, I’m thinking it would be good for us to talk about what we can do with that money and also what we can do now to try to make the best of a challenging situation.”

And with that, your face relaxes and you breath a sigh of relief. You aren’t in trouble and this is actually a healthy and positive conversation. But what you don’t realize is that your facial expressions sent your partner a subtle message that you were feeling a little defensive and apprehensive to talk. Maybe not a big thing, but these micro-expressions can be understood in many different ways that taken negatively can add up over time. This is the disadvantage of having a one way perception. You never actually get to see what the other person sees.

With the introduction of online video chat services, perhaps a huge advantage has now been afforded us. We not only see the face of the people we are speaking to, we also see our own face. We see what they see, and that can be very informative.

In 2011, David Neal and Tanya Chartrand published an article on facial feedback. They touched on the possible impact of Botox on non verbal communication. It is interesting to consider how this product could actually inhibit a persons ability to express their true feelings because their face has been locked in place. They could feel one way, and due to the Botox, not physically be able to express it. This could potentially be quite confusing for other people.

In the same way, when we are unaware of how we facially present ourselves to others, we may unknowingly be transmitting unintended messages. Imagine walking into a room filled with strangers, you aren’t feeling very confidant, and you aren’t sure how you will be received. It’s quite possible that your face expresses that anxiety or it may also communicate that you are aloof and uninterested in socializing. Yet, you may not even realize that others are reading your facial expression very differently than how you feel.

I remember the very uncomfortable feeling of recording and watching myself give presentations. I also remembering listening to audio recordings of myself. The first time I heard a tape recording of myself, I truly wondered who was talking. This happened because we hear ourselves through our inner ear making the tone and quality of our voice sound very different than what other listeners hear. For the first time I was hearing myself as others did, and it freaked me out. I did not recognize myself. While with video, the first time I witnessed myself as others saw me, I cringed. There is something about seeing yourself act and speak that can be unnerving the first few times. I realized this as a professor, when I would require students to video record their presentations and later analyze themselves. They were consistently hard on themselves, as they uncomfortably watched themselves in action during the anxious moments of class presentations.

With FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype, we now have insight into how we present to others. While many recent articles and memes have been dedicated to how we dress for online meetings, perhaps with a nice top and pyjama bottoms, what is certainly more critical is our facial messaging. Our ability to give eye contact (but not “too much”), smile, actively listen, and empathize with the other people sends a very important message. These video tools provide real time feedback that could help us be more in tune and congruent with how we feel and how we present ourselves to others. In turn, those people we communicate with could begin to feel more prioritized, valued, and heard as we learn and do a better job of tuning in. Connections would deepen as people begin to feel more safe with each other. We may be on the cusp of becoming more aware and effective communicators.

Is it possible that this new technology could actually help us to become more self aware? Imagine if a by-product of this physical distancing was that we became more mindful of our own body language, facial expression, and speaking style as we spend more time in front of a camera and screen communicating to others. Perhaps a silver lining of the COVID-19 physical distancing could be more self awareness and emotional connection for us all.

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