As a specialist in cognitive neuroscience, I’ve always been fascinated by how we communicate. Many people think it’s all about words and language, but we were communicating with each other long before we had words. Understanding how all the senses are involved can really help us do it better.
For a variety of reasons, these days we spend a lot of time communicating online, and we all know how much information goes missing in that environment. Even with webinars or videocalls, there’s something missing. We may not know exactly what, but we instinctively feel it’s ‘not the same’.
Neuroscience can help us understand how we communicate, and how to communicate better, even online.
The role of language in communication
In modern societies, we rely a lot on words – we think of them as the essence of communication. But from an evolutionary point of view, words and language are very, very new.
It’s only in the last generation that most people in the world have learned to read. Before this generation, only around 30-32% of people could actually read. In previous generations, the percentage was even lower.
Spoken language has existed far longer than that, but in evolutionary terms, it’s still very recent. There’s some dispute about exact timing, but language has only been available to us for between 70,000 and 150,000 years.
From an evolutionary perspective, we haven’t evolved to read,(or even speak) instinctively. The brain uses existing old mechanisms in our brain. That takes up all our working memory. So it’s difficult or even impossible to do anything else well at the same time as using language.
How we communicated before language
We’ve been living in groups and communicating with each other for millions of years. So how did we communicate before language appeared 150,000 years ago? The answer is that we use all kinds of other stuff which evolved over those millennia.
Facial expressions are really important. We perceive them automatically, unconsciously. Even when there are whole crowds of people, you can perceive the average facial expression without conscious effort. That can trigger a whole bunch of physiological responses in us, for example a fight or flight response.
Eye gaze – where someone’s looking – is an extremely important communication signal.
For example, if there's three of us in a conversation and the person who’s talking has an expectation about who will speak next, they look at that other person. It indicates to them that it's their turn next. (This is often accompanied by subtle gestures, such as leaning forward or gesturing to the person.)
This doesn’t work on Zoom or online, because everyone's looking at their camera or their screen, not at each other. That’s why, when there are multiple people in an online call, two or more will so often start speaking at once. It happens in face-to-face as well, but much less.
We have physiological responses to eye gaze that we’re not aware of. So when you’re online and everybody's looking at you, it can be very disconcerting. People don't usually stare straight at you in person - it's actually aggressive. That’s one thing to be careful of.
On the other hand, when people online start looking down or doing something else, you automatically and subconsciously note that. You’ll tend to make assumptions about what they're doing, generally that they’re not interested in what we’re saying. In actual fact they could writing notes, looking at presentation materials – or even looking at you onscreen, depending on how their computer and camera are set up. But your brain automatically interprets their gaze based on millions of years of evolution, rather than on this new thing called online communication. That can have a real negative impact.
When you’re communicating face to face, body language is extremely important. It accounts for about 40% of communication. Are you sitting forward and interested, or are you sitting back and ignoring them? What about standing over them versus sitting down and being more submissive?
Let’s not forget touch.
All human societies have a form of touch during the first greeting. In more stoic societies, we shake hands. In many European countries, people kiss each other. The Inuits rub noses, because the nose is the only part of their body which is actually showing.
We do this because there are C fibres on our skin, there specifically for touch. Those C fibres activate an area of our brain which releases oxytocin. This so-called ‘love hormone’ makes you feel more connected to other people, more likely to trust them. Studies show that people who have sniffed oxytocin are more likely to buy things or donate money. They’re more trusting.
That’s the power of touch. And of course, online, you don't get any of that.
Finally, there are pheromones. All kinds of pheromones are released when you touch someone, or get close to someone. Once again, you’re getting connection – either positive or negative – from something automatic and beyond your control.
How to apply this to communicate better
By now you’re clear that communication is about much more than just language and writing. Other factors have much more impact on how people relate to each other. How can you use this to improve communication?
Face-to-face is more effective than online
Working from home and never seeing anyone else face-to-face is really not good for mental health. It’s practical, and it’s part of our modern lifestyle, but think about how you can organise things so that team members get together in person, at least once or twice a week.
Without this, you lose connections, and you don’t work together as well. It has an impact on the quality of innovation and collaboration, as well as on overall productivity. So, design some face-to-face time into your working schedule.
Be conscious about communicating online
1. Position your camera well.
Sit so you’re looking into the camera, of course. That’s basic. Also, make sure it’s at or above eye level. If you’re looking down, that’s aggressive to the other person. You wouldn’t do it in real life – if someone was sitting, you’d sit down rather than stand over them. Don’t do it online either!
2. Tell people what you’re doing when you look away from the screen.
If you’re not looking into your camera, everyone assumes you’re looking at your phone. That’s not always true – you could be taking or reviewing notes, or looking at a presentation. But tell the other person so they know you’re still engaging with them.
3. Use hand gestures
The first point here is to position your camera correctly. If you’re too close, all people will see is your head. They miss out on your gestures, so they lose a lot of the meaning in them. On the other hand, if you’re too far away you’ll be tiny and they’ll lose the detail.
By the way, many media personalities are actually trained in how to use their hands more when they're on camera. Gestures are important.
4. Limit participants
Try to keep online meetings to just two people wherever possible. As mentioned above, with more than two people things get more awkward. It’s hard to know whose turn it is to talk.
5. Send presentations in advance
Sometimes you have to meet online with a large group of people. Consider sending all the presentations prior to the actual meeting. Ask them to email any questions in advance. Then, during the meeting, spend 10 to 15 minutes going through the questions you’ve already received. It’s easier than a discussion with lots of people all trying to speak at the same time.
Keep the group meetings short. If you need more discussion, break off and have some one-to-one sessions.
Actually, this approach is worth considering for in-person meetings. There are some people who simply don't like speaking in public. There are others who want time to think before they respond. Sending information in advance makes it easier for more people to participate.
That’s 5 tips you can use to communicate better online, all based on the neuroscience of communication.
And for the times when you are face to face, remember – greet people with an appropriate touch. And smile. It’s contagious.