Breaking the social bond: The immobilized face

After teaching for hours on Zoom, I feel exhausted. Zoom fatigue is real.

While talking to a close friend, all of a sudden his attention shifted from listening to me to looking his cellphone as he heard a notification.  At that moment, I felt slightly left and hurt.

Students report that when they are are talking with friends and their friends look at their cellphone or responds to a notification they feel hurt and slightly dismissed. Even though most experience this break in social bonding, almost all do this with others. The looking at the phone is the conditioned stimuli to which we automatically respond when we feel it vibrate or even when we see it.  We respond by shifting our attention to the phone in the same way that Pavlov’s dogs would salivate when they heard the bell that was conditioned with the food.  On the average we now check our phones 96 times a day—that is once every 10 minutes and an increase of 20% as compared to two years ago (Asurion Research, 2019).

To feel SAFE is essential for growth and developing intimacy.  We interpret being safe through the process of neuroception.  Without conscious awareness our brain processes facial cues to identify if the interactions are safe or not safe.  If safe, vigilance and sympathetic arousal is reduced and better communication is supported (Porges, 2017). On the other hand, if a person’s face is flat and non-responsive during a conversation, it may signal danger and trigger fight/flight in the person seeing the non-reactive face. This unconscious stress reaction to a non-responsive face is the basis of the Tier Social Stress Test.  In this stress assessment, participants are asked to give a presentation and are also given an unexpected mental arithmetic test  in front of an panel of judges who do not provide any feedback or encouragement (Allen et al, 2016)). Not receiving social feedback while communicating is one of the most stressful events –it is being stuck in social quicksand as there are no cues to know what is going on.

We wonder if the absence of confirmative facial feedback is a component of Zoom fatigue when presenting to a larger group in which you see multiple faces as small postage stamps or no face at all.  In those cases, the screen does not provide enough covert facial and body feedback to know what is going on as you are communicating.  The audience non-responsive faces may covertly signal DANGER, The decrease visual and auditory signals is compounded by:

  • Technical issues due to signal bandwidth and microphone (freezing of the screen, pixilation of the display, breakup in sound, warbling of voice, etc.).
  • Viewers sitting still and facially immobilized without reacting as they watch and listen.
  • Time delay caused by participants turning on the microphone before speaking may be negatively evaluated by the listener (Roberts, Margutti, & Takano, 2011).
  • Non-recognizable faces because the face and upper torso are not illuminated and blacked out by backlighting or glare.
  • Lack of eye and face contact because the speaker or participant is looking at the screen and their camera is to the side, below or above their face.
  • Multi-tasking by the speaker who simultaneously presents and monitors and controls the Zoom controls such as chat or screen share.

In normal communication, nonverbal components comprise a significant part of the communication (Lapakko, 2007; Kendon, 2004).  We use many nonverbal cues (lip, eye, face, arm, trunk, leg and breathing movements) as well as olfactory cues to understand the message. In most group zoom meeting we only see the face and shoulders instead of an integrated somatic body response in a three-dimensional space as we look near and far. On the other hand, in front of the computer, we tend to sit immobilized and solely look at a two-dimensional screen at a fixed distance.  As we look at the screen we may not process the evolutionary nonverbal communication patterns that indicate safety. Similarly, when child does not receive feedback as it reaches out, it often becomes more demanding or withdraws as the social bond is disconnected.  

Parents captured by their cell phone while their child is demanding attention. 
From: https://live.staticflickr.com/3724/11180721716_1baa040430_b.jpg

Communication is an interactive process that supports growth and development. When the child or a person reaches out and there is no response. The detrimental effect of interrupting facial responsiveness is demonstrated by the research of University of Massachusetts’s Distinguished University Professor of Psychology Edward Tronick (Goldman, 2010; Tronick et al, 1975).

How to maintain build social bonds

Recognize that being distracted by cellphone notifications and not being present are emotional bond breakers, thus implement behaviors that build social connections.

Zoom recommendations

  • Arrange your camera so that your face and upper torso is very visible, there is no backlight and glare, and you are looking straight at the camera.
  • Provide dynamic visual feedback by exaggerating your responses (nod your head for agreement or shake your head no for disagreement).
  • When presenting, have a collaborator monitor Chat and if possible have them shift back and forth between share screen and speaker view so that the speaker can focus on the presentation.
  • Use a separate microphone to improve sound.
  • If the screen freezes or the sound warbles often an indication of insufficient bandwidth, turn off the video to improve the sound quality.

Social bonding recommendations

  • Share with your friends that you feel dismissed when they interrupt your conversation to check their cell phone.
  • When meeting friends, turn off the cell phone or put them away in another room so not to be distracted.
  • Schedule digital free time with your children.
  • During meal times, turn off cell phones or put them in another room.
  • Attend to the baby or child instead of your cellphone screen.

For a detailed perspective how technology impacts our lives and what you can do about it, see our book, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics (Peper, Harvey, & Faass, 2020).  Available from: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232119/tech-stress-by-erik-peper-phd/ 

References:

Allen, A. P., Kennedy, P. J., Dockray, S., Cryan, J. F., Dinan, T. G., & Clarke, G. (2016). The Trier Social Stress Test: Principles and practice. Neurobiology of stress6, 113–126.

Asurion Research (November 19, 2019).Americans Check Their Phones 96 Times a Day.

Goldman, J.G. (2010). Ed Tronick and the “Still Face Experiment.” Scientific American, Oct 18.

Kendon, A. (2004). Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press  ISBN-13 : 978-0521835251 

Lapakko, D. (2007). Communication is 93% Nonverbal: An Urban Legend Proliferates. Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal, 34, 7-19.

Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics.  Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books. ISBN-13: 978-1583947685 

Porges, S.W. (2017). The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN-13 : 978-0393707878 

Roberts F., Margutti P., Takano S. (2011). Judgments concerning the valence of inter-turn silence across speakers of American English, Italian, and Japanese. Discourse Process. 48 331–354. 10.1080/0163853X.2011.558002 

Tronick, E., Adamson, L.B., Als, H., & Brazelton, T.B. (1975, April). Infant emotions in normal and pertubated interactions. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Denver, CO.

 

 

 

 


3 Comments on “Breaking the social bond: The immobilized face”

  1. Thank you so much for identifying what I experience but have dismissed. Looking at cellphones during an intimate live conversation feels hurtful as dismissive as you mention. Please continue your posts they are full of rich information.

  2. Lorna Sandler says:

    Fascinating. Certainly my experience. Well done.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Marta Sherwood says:

    Dr. Peper:

    Thank you for this insightful information and ways in which we can improve communication and connection while using online platforms. I will keep your suggestions in mind the next time I participate in an online meeting.

    Keeping a few hours, daily, free from phone usage helps bring me down from “high alert”. Although, I am notorious for not keeping track of my phone, so I know I don’t check it 96 times a day. I’m also implementing a weekly “digital free” day, and those 24 hours help to “cleanse the palate” from the noise received all week from using the internet. A true day of rest.

    I learn new things every time I receive your articles. thank you.


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