Just the other day I was in the drive-thru of a popular fast food restaurant. When I pulled up to the window to pay and get my food, I was greeted by a peppy manager who addressed me by my first name and thanked me for stopping by. I eat fast food fairly often and my encounters are mostly unremarkable. When they are memorable, it’s usually not for a good reason. What I appreciated about this gentleman was his effort to make my experience in the drive-thru line personal.
It is easy to look at our increasingly digital age as one where face-to-face contact and personal connection have been supplanted by impersonal “reaching out,” “following” and “connecting” through various online media: e-mail, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. The truth is, people both desperately need in-person contact and are afraid of it.
Although technology helps people connect without some of the risks of in-person contact, such as awkwardness and rejection, it also precludes many of the rewards. Research shows that face-to-face communication is better than digitally mediated communication in fostering social competency. In fact, overreliance on the latter may stunt the development of important social skills, like empathy. In addition, instant messaging, as compared to in-person communication, was less effective in creating a sense of relational bonding. Along with these disparities, studies show that the positive feelings brought about by digital communication wear off quicker than the good juju created by real face time. Gabbing at the water cooler isn’t just the pastime of lazy or thirsty professionals, it serves an important social function.
Most of us have worried at one time or another if our text or email messages were perceived as we intended. Without the cues and context of face-to-face interaction, it’s difficult to know. Media Richness Theory identifies in-person communication as a “rich” medium, meaning that it provides enough verbal and nonverbal information to reduce the uncertainty of a message. Communication that requires clarity and certainty, like important business or personal information, should be packaged in the appropriate communication medium. If you need important business documents by the end of the day, for example, you might pick up the phone instead of sending an email. If you need a quick answer to a question related to your work, you might walk over to your co-worker’s desk instead of pinging them on instant messenger. What’s more, the ability to “read a room” is lost in digital interactions. The sense of whether or not your joke will land, or if there’s a palpable tension that needs to be addressed, can only be felt in vivo.
Has digital communication replaced much of our face-to-face interaction? For some, yes. But it would be a mistake to ignore the key differences in the various forms of communication and to rely too heavily on digital technology. Just the other day, a friend of mine showed up to my apartment unannounced. He had just been driving through the neighborhood and decided to stop by. My first thought was: who does that anymore? But I appreciated it precisely because it is so rare today.
What does all of this mean in business? Well, for one, our company philosophy revolves around building personal relationships. Social media and digital communication is merely a supplement to what we know is the key to successful business partnerships: personal connection. Our founder, the late Dick Rottman, extolled the virtues of building relationships. That could only be achieved, he argued, by leaving the comfort of our offices and personally engaging with others. In today’s business landscape, technology can make a whole lot of things easier. It can be frightening to shed the cocoon of our insulated digital world and actually connect with people. But, as a wise man once told me, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”