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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.