Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

On Not Being There: Specific Advantages of Non Face-to-Face Interaction

If you are a blogger or participant on an online forum who interacts with other highly skilled writers through text, you’re probably familiar with some advantages that come with communicating your ideas in this manner. In their article, “Virtual hybrid communities show that you don’t have to meet face-to-face to advance great ideas,” Dr. Gernot Grabher and Dr. Oliver Ibert provide a more objective, nuanced treatment of non face-to-face communication. The main takeaway is that non face-to-face interaction can’t simply be thought of as inferior to face-to-face interaction in a broad-brushed way. Consider the following points from their article:

  1. Cross-referencing (copying posts by fellow peers and integrate them into own statements) … is a common practice in virtual communities. As a consequence, discussions are often persistent over years due to the features of storing and retrieving messages.
  2. Most forums provide message databases that may be searched via electronic queries. Such a “rewinding” of time to accurately review and collectively re-elaborate a discussion seems hardly possible in a face-to-face meeting. Moreover, due to following on from certain previous posts (while ignoring other statements) members continually evaluate circulating ideas, thereby advancing some and, at the same time, sorting out less relevant ones.
  3. On average, across all the analysed threads contributors took about five days before reacting on fellow peer’s suggestions. These long response times offer several advantages in comparison to traditional face-to-face interaction: these response intervals leave, for instance, more time for participants to contemplate answers.
  4. They further allow testing various modifications and versions of ideas before reacting to a contribution … Also it becomes feasible to wait with an answer until reliable diagnostic material or test results are available…
  5. Longer response times offer richer opportunities to support an argument with additional material, for instance with a sketch, a blueprint, a section from a research report, a CAT-scan, a set of supporting data or a photography. Due to longer response times, topics can be discussed more thoroughly.
  6. Community members who typically are simultaneously involved in a range of related communities have the opportunity to introduce additional information by consulting alternative forums and to enrich debates with divergent ideas. Consider the analogy to correspondence chess. Here, even mediocre players can play on a level comparable to that of grandmasters, as they use the long response times between moves to mobilize collective intelligence … by asking fellows for advice, consulting relevant literature or testing alternative scenarios of moves on computers.

In addition to the advantage of having time to reflect and prepare a more thoughtful response, I’ve found that non face-to-face interaction also renders mismatched, cross-cultural non-verbal cues irrelevant. I consider myself blessed to have a number of longstanding international pen pals – none of whom I’ve ever met face-to-face or even chatted with over video. Hence, I know that communicating by text can strip away certain cultural barriers and help avoid cross-cultural misinterpretation of non-verbal cues. Note that people in different parts of the world learn to use their facial expressions and body language differently. As I am a bit of a cultural outsider in the U.S., I’ve often found that westerners don’t interpret my eye gazing correctly (i.e., in my case, it’s wrongfully seen as a sign of shyness, lack of confidence, or dishonesty). Asian cultures teach you to avert your eyes out of respect.

It gets more complicated as any foreigner who’s traveled to the East knows. This theme of losing the capacity to interpret cues when you move into the space of a foreign culture is illustrated in films such as “Lost in Translation” with Bill Murray. To provide a more personal example, in my country of origin, Thailand (the land of smiles), there’s a smile for everything. There’s a smile for happiness, a smile for anger, and a smile for sadness. People even smile when they deliver bad news to others. This often confounds westerners and becomes something that is difficult to cope with due to the subtle differences in the types of smiles. Visiting westerners lack the necessary experience to successfully tell the different smiles apart. It’s like trying to identify all the different kinds of snow that Eskimos can identify.

In sum, there are some very specific contexts in which face-to-face interaction can further confound communications, and this is because it’s nigh impossible for people in general to unlearn what is so well entrenched and to master all the different permutations of non-verbal behavior that exists across a multitude of cultures. So this will remain a critical issue with cross-cultural teams whether they are co-located or virtually-based. Those who work in cross-cultural teams would do well to remember this as this phenomena tends to only be noticed when you’re a cultural outsider who has experienced people not always reading your expressions or body language correctly.

See also: Bordercrossing Paper: ‘Distance as an Asset?’ by Gernot Grabher and Oliver Ibert

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6 responses to “On Not Being There: Specific Advantages of Non Face-to-Face Interaction

  1. Thomas September 26, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    I agree with the quoted material, and with your own observations.

    A few other thoughts:

    1. Face-to-face interaction is hard for people who aren’t good at “reading” others’ body language and facial expressions. The ability to “read” such things is probably related to personality type. The written word eliminates (or reduces) the need to for such “reading.”

    2. Another advantage of the written word is that it levels the playing field between those who are glib and those who aren’t. In face-to-face meetings (including teleconferences), the glib person may make points that seem superficially plausible, and the group might be swayed by the glib person’s argument. The non-glib person may have reasonable reservations, but can’t express them well without taking some time to formulate them. Given a few hours or a day, the non-glib person may well come up with a better argument that the one offered by the glib person.

    • Lynn Patra September 27, 2014 at 12:05 am

      Yes, agreed Thomas!

      I’ve often encountered those who respond that face-to-face is all the more necessary for those who can’t read others well, just to give them practice so that they might improve. However, I would counter by asking exactly how much time and energy (including loss of productivity) should be devoted to improving people-reading skills in those who’re naturally wired this way (e.g., Autistic, Asperger’s, etc.) AND don’t particularly want to improve in this area.

      As a corollary, I’ve also debated a colleague on the need for me to be in the office because others need to read me. Even in a face-to-face situation however, I’ve found people saying that they can’t read me. Then, if I work just fine without reading their visual cues then I don’t see the need for me to be there. The ability to do this hinges on looking out for the tone of written messages but not immediately reacting to what you *think* you see but, rather, probing further to find the truth of the sender’s mood. So, I don’t think it’s a weird coincidence that the more reactive people I know insist on face-to-face even though that’s not a perfect way to gauge people’s mood or intent. In making this argument, I’ve also pointed out that people who are natural poker players exist – people who’re not easily read. Readers of this comment can refer to http://www.poker.org/news/study-poker-players-are-introverted-and-disagreeable-12692/

      • Thomas September 27, 2014 at 12:29 am

        Right on! Reactive people have no idea how much effort an introvert has to exert in face-to-face interaction, especially with strangers or near-strangers. It’s hard work.

        As you’ve noted elsewhere, our personality types are similar. I’m so hard to read that I’m often called “poker face,” though I’ve never exploited the trait by playing poker for money.

        • Lynn Patra September 27, 2014 at 12:56 am

          I’ve only played card games for money (just coins) when I was a kid. It was then, before I heard of the Big 5 personality traits, that I realized only one guy (out of several players) was similarly suited to such games. As others left the game when their cash pile ran out, it was down to us flicking a few coins back and forth, not being able to make a dent in each other’s cash piles. I realized that he and shared certain personality characteristics that the other kids didn’t exhibit. Lo and behold, there’s some confirmation in the professional world of poker! 🙂

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