OSAKA: Although digital innovation has already shifted people’s focus to the online virtual world, it has been more exaggerated by the pandemic, causing the “touch” element to physically and figuratively become absent.
“We are 3D creatures trapped in this 2D world, and we obviously feel that something is wrong, but it is hard to define what that is. I feel it in the back of my mind as if I am saying to myself that I need to see this person or that I want to be seen in 3D,” Ayako K. told Arab News Japan.
Ayako has been the head of communications at the Tokyo office of one of the major tech companies in the world for almost 8 years. She is experienced at dealing with people online thanks to her outstanding communication and marketing skills.
“The brain actually wants that 3D information because there are lots of information that we can get from the actual world by sharing the same space with people. You pick up and give out a lot more information in a physical space, and it may feel psychologically safer. Physically touching may be a bit extreme, but figuratively touching other people occurs more naturally in real 3D life,” Ayako added.
For the past two years, people have been influencing each other mostly online. One could ask a legitimate question that is, how effective is that? And do we retain information the same way we do in a real-life office environment?
“Everyone’s aura is revealed in the office environment. You can check in your colleagues by being in the same office, seeing what they’re up to and picking up their body signals. That’s all missing in virtual interactions, and you have to pull it out from other sources, like asking the right questions or perhaps chatting more than usual, which is this extra layer of work that can be frustrating for our brains.”
It is intriguing to investigate Japan when discussing the physical aspect of touch since Japan was already a culture that lacked physical touch pre-COVID. In Japan, bowing replaces handshakes, hugs and kisses, and people speak politely rather than loudly, and masks are already adopted and frequently used.
“The distance was already there pre-COVID indeed, which is a major reason the virus spread was limited. On the other hand, the crowded trains of Tokyo used to cause people to be touching all over,” Ayako said and went on explaining how although one may think that Japanese people comparatively seem to have fewer amount of gestures, they can actually see ”more in the less” as they interact, like very subtle eye signals or hand movements.
“But when people join online meetings in Japan, a big part of the culture is gone because we don’t get the same signals as in real meetings when unique eye contact and subtle hand gestures play a huge role, so people have to be more vocal, unlike their usual selves, because lack of verbal intervention may imply lack of participation or contribution to the meeting,” Ayako said.
One of the dilemmas of online meetings is keeping the video turned off, leaving no hints or feedback for the person’s impression about the occurring dialogue. People may begin to wake each other up, saying things like, “Hey. Are you there?”
People can always be available online, but are they really present?
“That is one of the reasons why Japanese senior managers still ask for face-to-face meetings during COVID because they want that context,” Ayako explained.
Ayako believes that touch or being close to someone is vital, but with the right people stressing that she would rather have her formal meetings online and would prefer to pursue the real touch element with her small circle of family, friends and loved ones.
Could physical meetings become an exclusive act?
“We can pursue touch elsewhere. The company that I want in my ‘touch circle’ are those that I care most about. I do miss hanging out in the coffee room of our office, but neither do I miss a crowded Starbucks nor a train with no available seats,” Ayako clarified.
Does hanging online compensate for the small tap on one’s shoulder that a friend gives when they’re walking out to have lunch and for the incidental and serendipitous meetups that occur in the in-between urban spaces, the street, the mall, the train before people arrive at their real destinations?
“Technology evolved in how it works, though surprisingly, the way people come into contact hasn’t changed in terms of the basic gestures and the mental will to approach someone. Technology only facilitates the process, with smoother video chats, changing backdrops or perhaps other means,” Ayako said.
Virtual communications may breed more questions to decipher regarding what is truly going on in an interaction. However, technology transcends distance and, fortunately or unfortunately, enables connections that otherwise may be hard to occur, especially during pandemics.