Throughout the pandemic, Rohan and I have spent hours talking on screen with family and friends. Indeed, for us and many others, such conversations have become part of our everyday lives. However, while the ingenuity of the likes of Zoom, Skype and FaceTime is extraordinary, for Rohan and me it comes at a cost. In face-to-face conversations with those close, the ability to ‘read’ mood, emotion and the various unspoken messages is crucial. When conversing on screen, however, these very cues that allow us to relate are often lost.

Odd as it may seem, while Rohan has long felt that communication on screen is hampered, I did not realise the extent of the problem until after we returned from our summer in France. This blog tells of my discovery.

As soon as we arrived home I arranged to spend time with seven particular people; my sister, our two sons, our daughter-in-law, our grandson River and two close friends of whom the oldest is Neil. I have now seen them all and each time the feelings aroused by being near have been similar. Here, I describe what happened when I was with just two –  River, as we walked in his local park; Neil as we had lunch together outside a pub.

First to River. Over the months, whenever we have been with him on Skype, while he recognises us and talks a little, usually he soon finds other more interesting things to do, leaving his adoring grandparents as spectators. How different things were when he saw us walking towards him in real life. Immediately he rushed up smiling and shouting “Nana”, “Grandad” – it was a wonderful moment. For the next hour it was a bubbling 30-month old and “Come and see this log”, “Let’s throw stones in the stream”, “Look, there’s a birdie house”, “Here are some conkers, have one”, “Would you like a stick?” Then, of his own accord, he put his arms round our knees – the now traditional child ‘knee hug’ – or quietly took hold of our hands and lead us along. At one point, in response to a question from his father (Joshua), he said loudly and clearly as if to impress, “Can I have a cup of coffee please?” (he has never actually drunk coffee!). Then after he had drunk his milky concoction while first holding the cup handle with dexterity and then fishingout the frothy dregs with a spoon (see illustration), he said, “It’s a nice cup of coffee.”

Seeing the real River close up responding to us ‘in the flesh’ was very special. It was striking how much the tenor of his behaviour differed from the more reticent him that we see on Skype.

Turning now to Neil. As of old we again looked each other in the eyes, picked up each other’s body language, respected our various silences and responded together as we shared our environment. Just sitting together fully exchanging thoughts, developing ideas and challenging proposals was a warming luxury. Chatting across a table was so wholesome compared to our often faltering video conversations.

Communication on screen does not have to be compromised. For professional meetings, where body language and the like have little place, being linked on screen can work well. Accordingly, when Rohan and I have lessons with our language teachers – Rohan’s in Russian, mine in French – little is lost. 

Problems arise, however, when communication has to be at its most subtle and refined and I now believe I know why. Yes, the screen is small, yes the views of the people seen are often unfamiliar, but together with these limitations there is an additional and more important factor – the screen is flat. Looking at, relating to and communicating emotions with people who are two-dimensional is unreal and often difficult.

An awareness of three dimensions is wired into us as tiny children. By four months, children sense, are fascinated by and hunger for all aspects of three dimensions, i.e. depth, space, shape and, of course, notions of overlapping. For them, things that are flat are, in themselves, of relatively little interest. So much so that when a suckling child – let’s say a boy – is shown a photo of his mother’s face it has no appeal. When, however, he sees his mother’s face for real he is riveted. 

Learning to look at faces, read expressions, understand body language and then respond, is an important part of growing up and it stays with us always. Moreover, all rely to an extent on three dimensional perceptions. So for River, communicating with his family on a flat screen was close to impossible. Similarly, the enormous pleasure of being with a three dimensional Neil across a table was almost predictable.

If nothing else, my experience over the year of trying to communicate on screen has taught me the importance of real human contact.  

The illustration shows a photo of River spooning out the frothy dregs from his cup of ‘coffee’. 

For helping write this blog, I would like to thank Neil, Tina, Rohan and Vivien.

20 thoughts on “River, Neil and the Real Deal

    1. Dear Heather, Thank you for your comment. I am interested that you see a likeness. Genetics being what it is, a likeness is likely but I have never seen it. Love, Joe


  1. Dear Joe,

    I loved this blog- and I miss three-dimensionality too! This morning was wonderful- we will have a U.S. president we can respect and it was my grandson’s birthday- he lives in Oregon. I had a lovely conversation with him and told him it was the best birthday present ever. He laughed and I think he agreed. We also thought that Kamala Harris could be the first woman president of the U.S. and Roscoe (my grandson) noted- and a woman of color. Who knows- but we are relieved and excited!

    Love to all



  2. This pandemic makes us aware of one of our greatest needs: to be surrounded with people we love and enjoy interacting with. Your story, Joe, is a wonderful example of the power of nonverbal communication that struggles to travel via modern technology. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and remarks on this issue.


    1. Dear Thierry, Thank you for your kind comments. Your linking my blog with the pandemic and the greater use of electronic communication is fascinating. You are so right. The question is – what can we do about it? Yours, Joe


  3. Hi Joe, hope you and Rohan are both keeping well. Yes Zooming etc not the same as the real thing! Just meeting real people is so important. Great to see photo of River! Cheers, Mark.


    1. Dear Mark, Thank you for your comments. I was surprised to find that meeting in person is so very important – but it is. What are you doing now that the pools are closed. Best wishes, Joe


    2. Dear Mark, Thanks for your comments. I was surprised to discover that meeting in person was so very much better than on screen, but it clearly is. How are you managing now the pools are closed? Yours, Joe


  4. Hello

    I really enjoyed this, and am finding in my current role, trying to teach on virtual platforms creates a whole new set of challenges, aside from the technology, compared to face to face sessions where you can pick up so much more the non verbal cues.
    i feel sorry for the current university students, of which my eldest daughter is one, missing out on so much during these difficult times


    1. Dear Helen, Thank you so much for your comments. There must be ways of unflattening slides and the like. Now we know the problem, finding the solution will come. It will just need luck and originality, but it is a fascinating project. With best wishes, Joe. PS It was lovely getting a message from an x-student.


  5. Another uplifting post Joe, and the photo of River is so lovely… I really enjoy seeing my friends and neighbours as we walk around our local lakes; faces light up, a skip of delight and arms raised in virtual hugs makes our day.

    A simple smile, a nod or a few words about the weather from complete strangers as we socially distance on our walks keeps us connected in the real three dimensional world.


    1. Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comments. I am glad you like the picture of River. It is a favourite of mine too. The pleasure of meeting people in the real, and the current wave of chatting is important. Moreover, the role of three dimensions in these relationships now seems obvious. How odd. Love, Joe


  6. Hi Joe, Thanks for this and the lovely picture and news of River. Quite agree and am hearing this from patients for whom remote consultations can never replace the gains in communication and trust building that occur face to face. I have circulated to a group working out how to ‘teach to teach’ using remote consultations, because you describe so well the deep gains of being ‘with’ people, and the losses of not. Judith


    1. Dear Judith, Many thanks for your comments which I found inspiring. Artists have been trying for years, indeed in some instances centuries to overcome the limitations of communicating via a flat surface. So, dare I suggest that in your working group you include a portrait painter, a make up and lighting expert, a TV actor and a film producer. They should have some ideas. Also, you might like to add Helen Huntington (see letter above), a one time student of St George’s and now a consultant in Hull and closely involved in medical education. Many thanks again, Love, Joe


  7. Thanks Joe, Such an interesting perspective and suggestions. We struggled to even name what a normal consultation is – face to face doesn’t fit and different bits are missing from each modality. I would love to share thoughts and experiences and ideas with Helen – I’m sure we have a lot in common especially at the moment.


  8. Joe,
    The recent encounters you’ve had with River have been so important and life changing for him. Your blog sums it up well. He’s at such an absorbent stage and getting the ‘real you’ has made him happier even when you’re not around. He sets a place for you and Rohan at our tea parties and asks if you are joining whenever we go to the park now.
    On screen chats help but, as you say, he can’t quite connect. Being very observant, he can’t pick up the subtleties that he really needs.
    Tactility is crucial for a 2,5 year old as well. We are so lucky you are near again and making such an effort to visit.
    We all missed you.
    As always, loved the blog.


  9. Dear Joe,
    It’s been so useful to be prompted to think about what doesn’t work (and what does work) with screen communication. It is so much better than nothing and for me it has opened up opportunities and more regular connections (such as four siblings – and two honorary bonus-siblings – in three countries ‘getting together’ on a weekly basis since March). But you are quite right about the limitations. The lack of eye contact (as we look at pictures on the screen rather than at the camera lens which might simulate eye contact), the challenges of lip-reading for those of us whose hearing isn’t acute and of course the two-dimensional nature of the screen images are part of the conundrum. Hmm.
    Next up, 3-D virtual reality glasses?


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