Trust is analog
A handshake is worth a thousand Zoom calls. This has implications for going back to the office, building corporate culture, and democracy.
By Brad Berens
You’re on a short elevator ride with one other person. Neither of you speak, but you get a lot of information.
Does the other person politely keep a distance? Make momentary eye contact? If you’re a woman and the other person is a man, does he look at parts of your body in a creepy way?
If you’re a black guy, do you see the other person uncomfortably pull a bag closer or shift a package to the other side, thinking that you don’t notice the racism?
If you can smell the other person, then is it because she or he just went running? OK, the person is health conscious. Can you smell perfume or cologne? OK, the person is going out. If the person smells bad, then your Spidey sense tingles: am I trapped in an elevator with somebody who isn’t stable?
None of that information comes through on Zoom.
I was just in New York for a packed battery of meetings and two Ascendant Network gatherings, where I spoke and moderated. It was my second trip since March of 2020, the start of COVID. Familiar faces were incandescent with smiles as we clasped hands, fell joyfully into each other’s arms, or even did the “I’m still being careful” fist bump.
With new acquaintances, I got accelerated understanding: this person is shy; that person is more of a listener than a talker. A man named Kyle and I have a mutual friend, Lizzie, whom we both admire: it created an instant connection between us that lasted the entire conference.
Seeing people’s faces, hearing their voices, learning what made them laugh, watching how they moved, kinesthetically sensing their bodies and how they took up space…these interactions had the highest imaginable cognitive and emotional bandwidth. The information density of these interactions is immense, and the information is both intellectual (what we communicate) and emotional (how we do it).
In those brief, face-to-face conversations, I learned more, shared more, helped more, and advanced different projects farther than in a month of videoconferences and phone calls or several months of emails.
There are undeniable advantages to the move in corporate America away from obligatory face time in the office to hybrid or fully remote work. There are also disadvantages. On the disadvantage side, it’s harder to create trust when talking with your colleagues is like watching the old gameshow, The Hollywood Squares.
Trust is analog. Our work at the Center for the Digital Future shows that Amazon is the most-trusted consumer brand in America, and I think that a big part of this is because most of the products Amazon ships are physical, real, analog things. Every brown package with the smiley arrow, delivered pretty much when we expected it and at a fair price, earns an additional small amount of trust.
But maybe it’s more accurate to say that trust is analog first, or that trust is more easily analog.
Here’s what I mean: many years ago at a conference during the earliest days of the internet, I literally bumped into Hardy Cook, a person with whom I’d corresponded for years. Until that moment, I had no idea what race or gender Hardy was. Then I bumped into a white guy. We stepped back, eyed each other’s name tags. “Brad?” “Hardy?” We hugged hello.
Likewise, a few years later I asked Joseph Carrabis to speak at a conference. Joseph is a polymath whose regular columns I’d edited and with whom I’d enjoyed many long phone calls, but I’d never seen him. Standing at a reception, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. I turned and looked up, and then I looked up some more. I couldn’t place this giant.
“Brad,” a familiar voice then said. “It’s Joseph.” We hugged hello, and then I said, “Um, you’re taller in person than the little headshot on my computer monitor.” He rumbled a laugh.
With both Hardy and Joseph, many hours of interaction had built up trust like polyps building a coral reef. In other words, it is possible to create trust in digital environments. It just takes a lot longer.
Seeing people’s faces, hearing their voices, learning what made them laugh, watching how they moved, kinesthetically sensing their bodies and how they took up space…these interactions had the highest imaginable cognitive and emotional bandwidth. The information density of these interactions is immense, and the information is both intellectual (what we communicate) and emotional (how we do it). In those brief, face-to-face conversations, I learned more, shared more, helped more, and advanced different projects farther than in a month of videoconferences and phone calls or several months of emails.
As my friend Benjamin Karney put it: in conversation, face-to-face interactions have more sensory channels operating at one time than Zoom, and therefore more information comes across those channels. With Zoom, only your vision and hearing are engaged.
That might seem like enough because for humans our hierarchy of senses starts with vision, then goes to hearing. (For dogs, the top sense is smell/taste, then hearing, then touch, and then vision.) But even if sight and sound transfer enough information to achieve a task, that doesn’t mean they create culture.
Recently, the CEO of VISA, Al Kelly, said, “A job can be done at home. But I’m not sure a career gets built.” He’s right. We build our careers not just on doing our jobs well but also on creating mutual trust, one interaction at a time.
The stakes are higher than careers.
COVID plunged us into an endless series of Zooms and decimated our opportunities to build trust in high bandwidth, face-to-face situations. But even before COVID, we were already a polarized country, one of many polarized countries. Polarization comes from a lack of trust. The future of democracy might rest on the future of handshakes.
My favorite passage from Conrad’s Lord Jim touches on another side of this—how hard it is to understand other people, but how important it is to try:
It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
See all columns from the Center.
June 1, 2022