Is communicating in person the “gold standard”? You’re asking the wrong question

Golden light bulbs

‘Body language’ is a fundamentally flawed starting point

As a topic, communication suffers from assertions about how it works and the factors that shape its outcomes, including compelling, but not always evidence-based, communication myths. These often circulate in media reports of communication research and sometimes in research itself. Sometimes research evidence is limited to a particular scenario — or is retrospective, experimental, or hypothetical — but the finding is so intuitively plausible that the myth outgrows the original grain of truth. These myths then find themselves underpinning the way we describe communication in our own lives, and the cycle is reinforced.

Articles about Zoom and Mehrabian

People are resourceful when communicating online

There are many problematic statements made about online communication. For instance, video-calling is said to involve “inevitable miscommunication” such as “those awkward nanoseconds of wondering who’s going to talk next, followed by four people saying “Oops, sorry — no, you — no, you go ahead” at the same time”. While such ‘miscommunication’ problems do occur in video calls, they also occur during in-person encounters — and are completely ordinary. In fact, people are constantly confronted with silence and simultaneous talk, but have ways of managing both. Conversation analytic research shows that, while people routinely ‘misproject’ who should be speaking next, occurrences of overlapping talk are rapidly resolved.

Good communication depends on good communicators — regardless of modality

When it comes to the activities that comprise any encounter — online, on the telephone, in writing, or in person — our research as conversation analysts, and that of those with whom we work and on whose shoulders we stand, shows that we accomplish much the same things regardless of modality, across settings from intimate relationships, through government and enterprise, to healthcare. In other words, we do the same actions of greeting, closing, requesting, offering, complaining, agreeing, questioning, and answering (and more) in all languages and in all modalities. As Harvey Sacks, one of the founders of conversation analysis, stated many decades ago:

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Elizabeth Stokoe

Elizabeth Stokoe

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Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University, specializes in conversation analysis, communication training, & science communication.