Old School Social Interaction is Not Dead

This post is by Steven Duque from Living in the Future. He is a new contributor to Wall St. Cheat Sheet.

As virtual communications inch closer and closer toward simulating real-world everyday interactions, even techies, it seems, prefer meeting face-to-face.

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.

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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