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.