08/09/2012 04:37 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

In Defense of Face Time

Each semester on my syllabus I let students know that some questions or concerns can't be resolved via email. For example, a student stumped on a paper topic might benefit from a five-minute brainstorming session with me far more than exchanging five emails (which would actually take longer to type and read). And yet I have noticed that my office visiting hours, and those of my colleagues, go mostly unfilled except for right before or after a major assignment.

I get this: it takes time to go to another building, find an office and talk to someone during the limited time when they are available. We save so much time doing things electronically.

Although electronic conveniences help us avoid face time (except for the Apple version, of course), there are several benefits to in-person communication that sociologist Erving Goffman can help us understand. In his essay, titled "On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction," Goffman says, "a person tends to experience an immediate emotional response to a face ... he cathects his face; his 'feelings' become attached to it." In other words, how we feel about any given situation -- and about ourselves -- is directly related to reading others' reactions to us.

Think about how this task can be difficult when we can't see someone's face or hear the intonations in someone's voice. That's why the tone and underlying meanings of emails and texts can easily be misinterpreted and even upset recipients.

Goffman's essay focuses on how important it is for us that other people's perceptions of who we are remain consistent with our own self-perceptions. No doubt you have heard the expression "saving face," which means that we work to maintain a sense of who we are in our interactions with others.

Perhaps that's why some face-to-face interactions can be more productive: The other person has more at stake in our thinking highly of them so they can continue to think highly of themselves. Who wants to disappoint someone directly to their face?

I suspect that's why many students might not visit their professors during office hours: They don't want to risk the emotional reaction of not living up to their sense of self if a professor's face or body language expresses disappointment. This is often the case when students are failing a course or have missed a deadline; although a face-to-face interaction is in their best interest, since many professors will respond to the emotional investment that a visit suggests, the risk of rejection or condemnation keeps away those who need the interaction most.

Certainly not every face-to-face interaction is positive or productive. We've all experienced bad customer service in person, perhaps causing us even more outrage because we feel more personally disrespected when it happens in person. And of course some meetings between students and instructors do not go well either.

Goffman argues that we learn how to interact with others through everyday rituals, and that these rituals are important to us because they give us valuable reinforcement of our own identities. When you take away the in-person interaction of an office visit some information is invariably lost. Think about friends and family whose emails are terse and may be read as aloof, although in person they are anything but cold. Or online profiles that highlight an aspect of someone's personality that doesn't seem to reflect who they are overall. People are not necessarily intentionally misleading us with these kinds of communication, but by removing the face-to-face interactions we miss out on valuable data about who they are and how they are responding to us.

Professors can seem intimidating sometimes; part of the performance of being a professor involves proving to others -- and to ourselves -- that we really do know more than our students, which can make professors seem aloof. Despite this impression, face time is a really important part of the education process. And it's good practice for the future, learning to interact with people in positions of authority. Oh, and it might help get that letter of recommendation someday, too...

Karen Sternheimer is an associate professor of sociology, USC Dornsife College of Letters Arts & Sciences. Her most recent book is "Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility."