(This blog was written by Jaime Salm & Slavko Milekic, MD, PhD)
The COVID19 pandemic has already redefined many things (industries, behaviors, culture, etc.) and is surely going to keep dramatically altering our world. As we see it, we will be defining the next decade in the next few years. Setting new priorities, values and charting a course for humanity.
There are many opportunities and patterns that have become evident to us. In this post we would like to expand on a new phenomenon that we will call “breaking the sixth wall”. In our view it is altering the way we look at each other profoundly. Over the course of the pandemic many have been forced to work and conduct social life remotely, using technology as a means of communication. Most of these encounters are now taking place from more intimate environments. Living rooms, dining rooms, home offices and sometimes entire homes are becoming the context where business and social interactions take place. This has had the following effect on our lives:
- We are entering friends, colleagues and strangers’ private realms frequently
- The medium is biasing our perception
- We are using the medium as part of our message
- Informality in appearance and communications is increasing
- We have lowered our attention spans
- We and the mediums we choose are redrawing life, work and social boundaries
The Private Realm
The impact of entering someone’s private realms may be undetected at first. Over time we have begun to access some implied information about those whom we establish communications with. The spaces, rooms, furnishings, décor and the families of those whom we communicate are inadvertently revealing information that we process consciously and unconsciously. The neutral ground of a meeting room, bar or restaurant has been eliminated. This non-verbal information is playing some role in how we communicate, the decisions we make and how others see us.
The mediums we are using to communicate (phones, text, video conferencing and even interactions from a distance with a covered face) are altering the way we understand each other. The limitations of the mediums can remove bias. For example, in a real life meeting our height, weight and appearance may play a role in the outcome of the meeting. By removing some of the physicality of certain encounters we may be removing barriers and preconceptions. One of us remembers a phone conversation with mom where her voice unexpectedly changed to an unusual digital voice. This was probably due to bad signal but the advice all of a sudden registered loud and clear with more urgency than if it had been her actual voice. Our biases can be temporarily suspended by the limitations of a medium. We are biologically predisposed to understand through multiple channels. Remove one and we put emphasis on another. Not all of these medium biases will result in more equitable and positive communications but some of them may offer breakthrough insights and opportunities.
Controlling the Medium
While most distant interactions are really happening from actual homes at this moment, there are signs that this will soon change. The simple reason is that the medium allows one to “project” an image of oneself, just like a Facebook or Instagram profile. And humans like to do that – project an ideal image that often has nothing to do with their real selves. During a recent news broadcast, several guests were contributing remotely, presumably from their homes. One of them was participating from what seemed to be a nice room with a bookcase with hundreds of books behind him. The anchor casually mentioned how impressed she was and asked him if he had read all of these books. He just laughed and said, no, this is the background I have chosen for this conversation. Now let’s consider what other aspects of each medium may eventually be in the menu to change the “message”.
The spaces and stress of our current condition has moved our communications to be more relational. The transactional aspects of work and other less intimate communications are still present but we have been forced to recognize others in new ways. Our ability to work together across distance and succeed is now more clearly tied to our communication style, ability to listen and empathize. Informality brings about new meanings to the interactions and value of relationships. In the short term there is no longer solely transactional communications as we navigate unknown communication mediums. When our lives depend on one another, we open the way for a new awareness of our interdependence and start creating new kinds of interpersonal relationships at work and beyond. On the other hand, the informality of communication is permeating other channels that thrive on consistency and formality. An example is late-night shows. Their hosts have attempted to find a “human angle” and in doing so have forced us into being a captive audience (whether we like it or not) of their personal lives. We now know their children’s faces, pet names and birthdays. At the same time the production value has plummeted when compared to others more proficient at doing more with less (like YouTubers). In short, informality can be a good thing but requires some discipline and self-awareness to achieve breakthrough outcomes.
Lowering of Attention Spans
Over the course of our online interactions we have noticed a drop in focus and attention span. In real life meetings it is often body language that signals engagement. To “raise your hand” in a virtual meeting, you will often find yourself waiting for a couple of other people to finish speaking, losing spontaneity or your train of thought. It is also very hard to interrupt other people in a moderated virtual meeting. Not that we are so much in favor of interrupting but sometimes it builds and takes a conversation further. Lastly and perhaps most troubling it is also easy to become disengaged. It is now common to become temporarily invisible in a virtual meeting, replaced by your name or icon of your choice. So, you are “there”, but you really don’t have to or want to be there. This leads to a significantly impoverished group experience.
The time and space for work and life activities have for some become one and the same. It is not unusual for people to struggle creating new routines and patterns that work for them and that bring them joy and wellbeing. This breakdown can enable us to be more empathetic in our communications and has also triggered for many a period of self-examination. These boundaries of work and life are artificial and as such they should be re-evaluated constantly for better alignment to our personal values. This will ultimately result in changes about prioritization of activities, relationships and societal outcomes.
At this point we have all probably experienced the unmuted, incessantly barking dogs, kids shouting and fighting in the background, banging pots and the sounds of dish washing or perhaps the adventurous meeting participant driving his car through traffic. There is definitely intimacy in these moments, just not the kind that is productive in the long term. A new etiquette is needed so that the right kind of intimacy can be at the heart of our evolving digital communications. Knowing when to mute microphones, send messages instead of video calling or just giving each other the time to take care of our personal needs must become the new normal.
If you have a good laptop and internet connection, not to mention a solid microphone or headphones, it is easy to be heard in a meeting. If you have a lousy laptop and poor internet connection, you often cannot even participate meaningfully. One of us recently watched how a reporter (who was obviously contributing from home, with a subpar microphone on her laptop) was unceremoniously ditched for a guy who had less to say but had a better laptop. This is now also a huge problem in distance education where a large percentage of children do not have adequate technology to take part in classes. There is an example one of us heard about where a young girl did not have a laptop. A couple months later she was given a Chromebook as a remedy, only to discover that they did not have internet service at her house. The digital divide is revealing difficult truths about those who will not be able to participate in a post-pandemic world on equal footing.
Behind the Curtain
It is safe to say that during times of crisis we see more clearly. Right now, the curtain has been lifted temporarily, we see the wizard turning knobs and pressing buttons to sustain a constructed reality. When we break the sixth dimension, we see a more unvarnished truth, beyond our public and social personas revealed by our surroundings, private interactions and a series of mediums that we have been forced to adopt at lightning speed. We think the breakdown of this dimension will in time open minds and hearts to a more honest, caring and resilient future.