One of the most interesting aspects of the excellent BBC TV series Traitors, apart from Claudia Winkleman’s eye liner, was the inability of the contestants to read each other. Time and again we witnessed them analysing their fellow ‘guests’ and getting it wrong. They repeatedly misinterpreted body language, comments and behaviour. They were in a state of high alert, they were being hyper sensitive and observant and still they came to the wrong conclusions. On numerous occasions.
It reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers in which he also explores how human beings are so often so bad at judging others, particularly people we don’t know. He references history, psychology and some infamous legal cases (Amanda Knox) to illustrate how sometimes tragic misunderstandings can occur when people don’t behave as we expect them to or as we ourselves behave.
It’s an issue which often comes up in my training room in the context of online communication. Many people see a Teams gallery of flat, bored-looking faces and misinterpret this as disinterest in or hostility to the content. That can lead the speaker to panic and lose confidence; to increase their pace, fast forward over material or veer off-piste. They’re attempting to provoke a more reassuring non-verbal response; a facial expression which they recognise as attentive or engaged.
There are two problems here.
One – online participants experience less human connection with the speaker. There is a physical and psychological distance which means we feel (in many cases unconsciously) less obliged to demonstrate to the speaker that we’re enjoying their content. After all, they aren’t looking directly or exclusively at us, as would happen in a real-world context.
Two – people have very different types of concentrating face. Some are naturally active-listeners, others have a neutral or serious or even haughty listening demeanour.
I’ve had personal experience of this: trainees who looked bored to tears all through the session but then gave glowing feedback on the experience. Not ‘traitors’ after all! Plus, I live with two people who both have RBFs.
And sometimes there might be cultural factors at play. Respectful behaviour in one culture might look and sound like disinterest to another. Erin Mayer’s The Culture Code is very good on this topic.
So, while it’s obviously important to be responsive to our audiences, to be able to adapt to them and to any changing situation, if required, we must also be wary of misconstruing what we see in a Zoom room.
If we’ve prepared well, if we know we have content which is genuinely of value to them, we shouldn’t take fright at a flat face because the chances are, we’re making the wrong judgment. And sending an ‘innocent’ home…..