Last week we asked One Question members to pose and answer one question they think we should be asking as the country and the world begins to navigate the impact of Coronavirus. Be it from the perspective of themselves, their industry or society. It is undeniable that the next few months will change the way we behave, do business and invest in our relationships as we start to rebuild our lives and companies.
I have been asked a few times about the impact of Covid-19 on the events industry and the rise of virtual events as a permanent fixture of our new and improved world. (I am after all an eternal optimist.) A close friend of mine invited me into this conversation on Linkedin and you can read my thoughts and opinions from the perspective of virtual events and One Question here.
However this for me has posed a bigger question; have we underestimated the importance of real-life relationships?
The overnight shift to zoom happy hours and family facetime is tantamount to our ability to adapt, to create environments that make us feel safe and connected. In the main, this comes from the physical relationships we have with other people, be it, our colleagues, our family, our friends, a local community or those people that simply keep us motivated. Every day, subconsciously or consciously we turn to people to be our cheerleaders, amongst other things and as soon as those relationships are not physical, they become virtual.
History has taught us that we are pack animals, the need to survive pulses through the societies and communities we create. Richard Tallinger outlines the social basis of human behaviour in his paper, Taking ADvantage,
“Humans have the most complex society of any creature on earth, which means we extend self-preservation beyond personal physical survival. We live in extremely complex and interdependent societies, where people band together in groups for mutual aid and protection. Such groups include families, friendships, associations, tribes, clans, states, nations. The members of these groups work together to help each other. Also, since the group enhances the members’ chances of survival, group survival means personal survival. The individual benefits by supporting the group, because the group reciprocates by supporting the individual.”
The rise of technology and the combined pressure to measure our success by what we own or what we have, the rise in clicks, likes and retweets has arguably replaced the importance of our relationships. We are now the most connected society, yet the loneliest. Johann Hari, author of ‘Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – And the Unexpected Solutions’ presented his TED talk in the summer of 2019, stating that the rise in depression and anxiety across the globe is in part due to a loss of connection. A lack of a ‘tribe’. In a study taken last year asking Americans how connected they felt, 39% stated that they no longer felt connected to anyone, with the UK and Europe not far behind. Hari outlines that like Talinger, our ancestors gained strength not because they were bigger or stronger than the animals they hunted but because they were much better at banding together. “Bees evolve to live in a hive, humans evolve to live in a tribe. This is the first society who has disbanded their tribe.”
I thrive on human connection, so much so I founded a business based on the importance of real-life conversation and the positive yet serendipitous impact that has on us all, both personally and professionally. Yet until last week, even I underestimated how much I rely on real-life relationships. I am an introverted, extrovert, and yet I am fuelled by other people’s opinions, perspectives, love, humour, emotional reactions, and intelligence. Be it through my family, my friends, my lover, my colleagues or simply people I meet from questions we ask. None of this I can replace through the virtue of a virtual video call.
Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT has spent a thirty-year career examining the human relationship with technology. In her latest book, ‘The Power of Conversation; Reclaiming talk in the digital age.’ Turkle examines the idea that conversation has been replaced by technology and has, therefore, become ‘endangered.’ As people, we are always connected and loneliness is perceived to be a problem that technology can solve, the dying art of conversation is the price we are paying.
“We see the costs of the flight from conversation everywhere: conversation is the cornerstone for democracy and in business, it is good for the bottom line. In the private sphere, it builds empathy, friendship, love, learning, and productivity.”
The art of conversation is not designed to exist on a 13” screen. Language and thereby conversation is part heuristics and part body language and the latter can not simply be replicated by technology. Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer in the research of body language in the ’50s found that a conversation is 7% verbal, 30% vocal and 55% nonverbal. Likewise, Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist of Kinesics, the study of ‘nonverbal communication, estimated we can make and recognise around 250,000 facial expressions in a conversation.
I am, of course, grateful that right now my days are made up of video calls, but like us all, I miss the conversation real life provides and resent the natural distraction technology allows. The art of a conversation is not broadcasting a series of words, but identifying and understanding tone of voice, facial expressions, inflection, emotion and body language. It is an art, not a science.
It is the art of this conversation that set the foundations for One Question and today has enabled me to ask many questions from many different perspectives and industries. We learn so much from each other in real life that simply can not be replaced by technology. Every person I have met or interviewed since starting One Question, from the CEO’s of publishing houses to soldiers in the armed forces has a different interpretation of the question or a different question. Our call to arms at the start of every event is that we are a conversation and the audience is as important to that conversation as the speakers on stage. Using this approach the power dynamic shifts. One Question is not about broadcasting one opinion to the masses, but inviting a perspective, through experience and opinion to solve a business or societal problem.
This is and will be for the majority of the world a testing time. We will all fall down the existential rabbit hole, wondering why we made some decisions that now seem futile or reminisce on things we wish we had done but didn’t, be it, our careers, business investments or relationship choices, I know I have and I am not alone. But, and it is a big but. When I look back to why I started One Question, it was not because I wanted to disrupt the events industry if you can call One Question an event, it was not because I wanted to become a millionaire, but because I wanted to build a community that can ask better questions through deeper, real-life conversation, and in doing so, change and build more profitable and let’s be honest more sustainable businesses.
So when I seek to answer my own question; have we taken our real-life relationships for granted? My answer is yes. Not because we necessarily chose to but because we didn’t choose not to. As we recover from the impact of Covid-19 our real-life relationships will become even more important. The conversations will be deeper and more vital for our teams, our customers and our businesses. The banding together that we naturally do will become more effective, the shift of power will change, the influence of business over society will be more significant, our challenges will be different, our desire to support businesses that scale for value over scale for volume will be greater. We will ask more questions, better questions, of companies, of our government and of each other, and we will be doing so face to face.
As turkle says,
We have come to a better understanding of where our technology can and cannot take us and that the time is right to reclaim conversation. The most human—and humanizing—thing that we do. The virtues of person-to-person conversation are timeless, and our most basic technology, talk, responds to our modern challenges. We have everything we need to start, we have each other.”