THE BLOG
07/09/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Drowning in Electronic Words: Starving for Touch

We are a society drowning in text and starving for touch. The onslaught of electronic interactions and transactions has structurally changed how we relate. Email, texts, tweets, on-line purchases and kiosks that dispense everything from cash to gasoline have made unspoken words and icons the center of our universe.

What we are losing is nonverbal touch -- a look that encourages, a hand that warms, a tone that soothes, a smile that greets, a wink that acknowledges, a lean-in that reinforces. As Jennifer Szetho, from Australian Vietnamese International says, "Most children at one time or another just want to know that their parents eyes light up when they walk into the room." Nonverbal attention is a precious relational resource that is drying up. As we stare down into our screens a whole other world goes by.

There is a word for a society that sacrifices its social senses to a growing monopoly of electronic words -- lonely. Loneliness for those over 45 has risen from 20 percent a decade ago to 33 percent today (AARP survey) -- an increase of 65 percent. Not only is loneliness a growing reality in our personal lives but it is a growing reality for businesses losing touch with employees and customers -- in the midst of a hyper-connected world. When Marissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo, summons workers back to their offices -- it means business is missing its workers more than its workers are missing it. Remember those lonely Maytag repairmen TV commercials? When customers avoid us and feel no brand connection, we become lonely businesses. Our latest word for saying "no" to relationships: "Unsubscribe."

Loneliness is a killer -- for individuals and businesses. Judith Shulevitz in The New Republic, reports that recent research by psychobiologists shows that human loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. Emotional isolation now ranks with smoking as a risk factor and is associated with Alzheimer's, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

In business the vital signs are different but their underlying mechanics are similar. Losing touch weakens bonds with stakeholders which also creates signal problems, diminishes relational commitment and alters the relational chemistry. When the only connection is words on a screen -- not handshakes, affirming nods and direct eye contact -- our relational diet loses nutrition.

What if we, like infants, require physical and emotional touch in order to thrive and are therefore malnourished? The parallel between physical exercise and relationships is interesting. We have spent a century investing in machinery, automobiles and home appliances that eliminate physical work. Yet the time saved is often reallocated to perform unpaid physical work -- exercise -- because it turns out physical exertion aids our health and well-being. Likewise, for many, advancements of recent decades have reduced direct human interaction. We have become relationally out-of-shape -- hurting our relational health and increasing the need for "relational exercise." When it comes to relationships, keys pressed, screens lit and buttons punched have their limits in promoting fitness. Let me offer three related reasons for rebalancing our interactions with more direct human contact.

The power of non-verbal. Nonverbal communication -- style, expression, tone, body-language, voice -- are especially powerful, harder to manipulate, more accurate and therefore impactful. Albert Mehrabian's Silent Messages estimated that 55 percent of the meaning pertaining to feelings and attitudes comes from facial expressions, 38 percent is in the way words are said and only seven percent in the words themselves. Think about how much of that non-verbal is lost in a world dominated by verbal-only, electronic communication. It is this nonverbal communication in social interactions that is so rich in the nutrients that feed us emotionally and socially.

Power of face-to-face. Whether King Arthur's Knights-of-the-Round-Table or warriors sitting in a circle around ancient council fires, face-to-face communication has long promoted team commitment, resolution of differences and innovation. Sandy Pentlant, Director, MIT's Human Dynamic Labs reports ("The New Science of Building Great Teams," Harvard Business Review): extensive, technology-aided observation found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of super-team success, more important than individual intelligence, personality, skill and the substance of discussions -- combined. Further, 35 percent of the variation in a team's performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among members where words are joined by present human beings. And, as Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina reports 'neuroplasticity' means that our habits mold the very structure of our brains -- neurons that "fire together, wire together." If we do not regularly exercise our ability to connect face-to-face, we will eventually find ourselves lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so. Use or lose it.

The power of human conflict and grace. Part of what is seductive about remote technology is avoiding sitting across from someone and dealing with differences and conflict. Yet like exercise, just because we can avoid a painful activity doesn't mean we should. As Amy Edmondson has said, "Conflict among collaborators can feel like a failure, but differences in perspective are a core reason for teamwork in the first place, and resolving them effectively creates opportunities." Further the power of mutual acknowledgement and reinforcement from group members is one of the most powerful forces in the world. And, much of it comes from nonverbal sources and touches us in ways we cannot even identify or describe. Whether for families, social groups or work teams, it is the secret sauce.

Look around. We suffer loss of cohesion, loyalty and commitment. The reason is not that hard to identify. If relationship is a fundamental unit of society, it is unlikely that we could dramatically lower our individual and group nutrition -- our interaction with others -- without suffering. Unuttered words alone on a screen are a thin relational broth that leaves us -- alone and hungry.