Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Online communication and body language” by Paradisi, P.; Raglianti, M. and Sebastiani, L. (2021), in which authors comment some hypotheses about the changes that online communication is bringing on to nonverbal communication.

The progress of digital technologies is having a deep impact on interpersonal communication.

The emergence of Covid-19 brought to light the need to further exploit digital technologies online to transfer interpersonal relationships to this context. Due to the need for physical isolation, we were also forced to adapt through a very fast process.

Therefore, the natural modality of face-to-face interaction today is often replaced by interactions through online communication platforms.

In fact, these types of platforms are now used much more routinely for meetings, courses, etc., all of them in different contexts: work environments, educational ones, and in general for any activity that involves social interaction.

Even older people, who previously were only marginal users of these technologies, were forced to use them as their only opportunity to maintain social contact with those close to them.

This new way of communication has brought about a great improvement in the possibilities of social interaction by overcoming the limitations of time and space. However, this have also modified the rules of communication, for example, those related to proxemics.

How is this? When we communicate through online video platforms, the distance that separates the image from the screen and the real interlocutor is a few tens of centimeters, which is less than the distance between the people involved in a face-to-face conversation.

Such closeness would presuppose an intimacy between people that does not really exist and a mutual predisposition to the potential use of the tactile channel (handshake, hug, etc.).

The problems noted suggest that online communication changes are complex and should be studied.

The body language is crucial both in nonverbal communication based on emotions, and in social interactions based on cognition. Therefore, it is foreseeable that the extensive use of online technologies may have important effects on cognitive processes, not only those related to educational activities, but also those related to emotional relationships in social life.

An example proposed by authors is “dance therapy.” In this therapy, body movements are used to promote personal and social well-being. The social component through bodily interaction plays a crucial role in this type of therapy: it is played with distances, perspectives, and reciprocity, creating a communicative context where movement takes place.

Studies that have previously been carried out, have shown that online meditation is compatible with the idea of ​​working with oneself, but this does not happen regarding interactions with other members of the group.

Authors suggest that the “human touch” plays a crucial role in establishing a sense of closeness between people, in addition, it facilitates affiliative behavior and social bonding. In fact, previous studies have shown a close relationship between a pleasant social touch and the release of oxytocin (modulator of social behavior and emotions).

The sense of smell is also involved in human nonverbal social communication; in fact, through it, we may inadvertently transmit personal information. And this sense would also be impaired by online communication.

Therefore, authors conclude that smell and touch are absent in online social interactions, visual stimuli are limited to 2d perception, while auditory stimuli are practically no different; there are changes in the relationship between perceived distances and knowledge, and there are no direct bodily interactions.

When people are online, those who interact cannot retrieve most of the relevant characteristics of the environment and the bodily behavior of others, adapting theirs accordingly.

These changes can undermine the emotional and empathic aspects of interpersonal communication.

A better understanding of these aspects might require a partial revision of the classical theories of communication, to consider the new modalities introduced by online interactions.

An open question, which authors consider for further investigation, is the quantification of perceived virtual distances in online interactions.

Although it seems that only negative points are observed, authors encourage us to approach the matter differently. We should not think about what we lose, but what lies ahead and what is new in this unexplored context.


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