I’m a judgmental lady (something heartily seconded by my Myers Briggs assessment).
While this may sound like I’m a highly unpleasant person, I should clarify that there is a difference between judging and making a judgment.
I don’t go around barking out personality edicts like some director in front of an inept chorus line (“You? Awesome!” “You? Grumpy!” You? Desperately in need of therapy!”)
For me, “judging” is more of a process of collecting information about a person as quickly as possible and using it to decide how I should communicate with them in return.
Just like you, this is something I do with both my senses and my gut.
Your four relationship-building senses (well, five … if you’re a zombie).
When you think about it, most of the information we collect when we first meet someone is simply a series of sensory cues …
• SIGHT: Does what this person is saying match their body language? Do they look connected to the conversation or are their eyes wandering? Are their arms crossed, making them seem closed-off and unreceptive?
• SOUND: Does this person’s voice sound tight and constricted by stress or anger? Is their tone conveying openness and interest in what you’re saying? Are they being sarcastic or sardonic, and how does that make you feel?
• SMELL: Do they smell like a smoker, hard core coffee drinker or crazy cat lady? How do you feel about those things? Do they wear the same cologne as your high school boyfriend, making you instantly nostalgic and swoony?
• TOUCH: Is their handshake limp or powerful? Does their hand linger a little too long on your back when they are talking to you? Are they a hugger? Do they touch your hand to get your attention when they’re talking?
• TASTE: Um … you probably do not employ this sense in building relationships.
When we meet people, we use all of this sensory information to create our perception of a person and our mind subconsciously helps to fill in any gaps in the picture.
For example, let’s say you’re talking to someone who has their arms crossed, a tight voice and is nervously tapping the table. Your mind might summarize this information and send you a message that says, “This is a tightly-wound person who is either unhappy with me or their environment right now. Tread cautiously.”
The gut reaction we get from our “sensory summaries” informs how we should behave in return. (For instance, you may choose to slow your voice and modulate the tone or lean back to give the person space, etc.)
Even with all of our senses working overtime, this process can still be highly skewed or erroneous.
There have been many times where I’ve meet a person and decided instantly that I adore them. But then, down the road when a more complete portrait of that person is revealed, I’m left wondering, “What in the hell were you thinking?”
Matchmaking in the dark.
In our online relationships however, nearly all of this sensory information is removed from the equation.
All we have are words on a screen next to an unchanging avatar mask (people literally, putting their best face forward).
The gaps between what we see and what may be reality are huge and we have no cues to help us bridge the divide.
Where, in person, we might have had six or seven sensory clues to help us form our perception of a person, online we have one (at best).
And yet, most of us continue to make same definitive judgments about the people we befriend online and act according to them.
Have you ever stopped and really given thought to why you feel the way you do about the people in your online social circles? What are you basing your feelings on?
What do you, in fact, KNOW versus what you only SEE?
For example …
- Is a person with a smiling avatar who uses lots of emoticons and exclamation points, in fact, friendlier, or are you just conditioned by the photo to expect them to be and read all of their posts with that preexisting lens?
- If a person in your digital network talks a lot about themselves, do you interpret that as a sign of self-absorption? Cluelessness? Desperation? What cues have they given in all of that chatter to give you that indication?
- Does an active conversation stream and large follower base really indicate that someone is a “social” person or could they actually be really lonely and desperate for human connection? If you never meet them in person, would you ever know the difference?
The reality is that, when it comes to relationship-building online, we are all like Gollum in his cave, nearly blind and often lost, but still convinced that the people before us are precious.
Where will this take us?
Social media is not just a cultural phenomenon, but a psychological one as well. It presents us with a radically new way of shaping our sense of self and presenting that self to others.
While we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the effect this can have for our businesses, I’m even more curious to know what affect it will have on our psyches.
• What kind of fallout will result from constructing relationships with such flimsy materials? If this style of connecting with people becomes the norm, what then will this mean for our more intimate connections with our friends and family? Is a relationship that is less “real” necessarily one that is less satisfying?
• If social media is in fact our “second life,” where we have the option to build relationships that reflect an alternate version of our selves, what kind of schism could that create in our overall sense of identity and what will be the long term affects of having that schism?
• Is social media a trigger that can magnify existing psychological issues (narcissism, addiction, depression) and what might that mean for psychologists who are trying to work with clients on those issues, but who do not understand the role that social media may be playing in undermining their efforts?
There is much that we do not know — and even more that we assume to have already mastered. To find the answers, we’ll need our senses, our gut and perhaps, most importantly, our judgments.