Virtual interactions have gained a lot of traction in the past five years, and nowadays companies heavily rely on them to communicate internally with employees scattered all around the world. Some even use virtual communication in an attempt to forge international relationships when venturing into a new region. Virtual interactions are also gaining ground due to growing concerns about the carbon footprint international travels causes. Going virtual saves money and the planet; it's a win-win!
When I inquire with employees who communicate internationally using programs such as Skype, U.S. nationals seem quite satisfied with the level of interaction produced virtually. Many praise how it has released them from international travels and the burden such used to create on their families.
On the other side of the camera, foreign interlocutors seldom share that same level of satisfaction. To them, interacting virtually remains a flat medium that will never replace the face-to-face approach. It's a temporary fix or something that functions well between visits.
That difference in perspective is rooted in our cultural differences: North American culture focuses on the transaction, while the rest of the world focuses more on the relationship. As a result of that difference, relying purely on virtual interaction when engaging across cultures seems to prevent the relationship from evolving to the level it could.
The question then becomes: Is this due to the fact that homo sapiens must get used to replacing the face-to-face meeting by its virtual counterpart, or is it truly against the nature of homo sapiens to interact purely virtually?
Many studies have shown that our animalistic fight or flight instinct -- the one that goes back all the way to our lizard brain -- must engage all our senses to establish if the person in front of us is safe or dangerous. The lizard in us needs to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste to reach a certain level of comfort and security with another person.
In the virtual world, the lizard brain gets only to see and hear. That's two out of five. As a result, it seems that our brains never fully engage with the other side, especially if the other side benefits from some face-to-face visits from another vendor or client. The bonding that takes place during those face-to-face visits is so powerful that it makes the virtual interaction bleak in contrast.
The next question then becomes an evolutionary one: Is it because for centuries we relied on our five senses to establish trust and bond with others that we can't fully engage virtually? Will the coming generations bypass that problem and dismiss their own set of senses to fully engage with others?
To find out, I talked my seven-year-old daughter into a virtual exercise. Since her best friend moved to Chile, she often engages in virtual play with her. They both borrow the iPads and play Barbie together for hours on Skype. They have an established relationship and seem to have zero problems engaging virtually, even if their last face-to-face visit was six months ago.
Wondering if bonding virtually instead of maintaining a deep relationship would be feasible for her, I suggested she start playing virtually with the daughter of a friend who lives across town. It didn't work. Both girls had little to say to one another, and playing together virtually never crossed their minds. I insisted, playing up all the benefits of having a virtual friend in the same time zone and not having to travel in traffic to go on playdates-to no avail.
My daughter said she would rather "play on her own than to play virtually." I was puzzled. "What about your Chilean friend?" I asked. "That's different," she responded. She couldn't explain why, but with her established friend, the virtual relationship seems too real to be considered virtual. The virtual seems irrelevant, as it allows her to feed a wonderful existing friendship. To create a new relationship and talk virtually with someone she had never met physically made her shy and uncomfortable to the point that without a word both girls left the room without even ending the call.
My conclusion is that unless homo sapiens mutate and our senses become muted, the face-to-face interaction will remain our favorite and most-needed way of building trust with one another. And trust, as we know, is the key ingredient of any long-lasting relationship.
For those who manage international teams virtually, a face-to-face meeting a few months into the project will go a long way. For companies operating on a shoestring or that are committed to entirely eradicate airplane travel, my advice is to develop a candid relationship via email and Skype as much as possible. This is done by always inserting a personal note or inquiry in your email, or by speaking of something else than business. In Northern Europe, for example, people don't share their private lives easily; but they love talking about world news and politics. Make sure to engage with them on those lines to build common interest through the virtual experience.
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