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Be more willing to communicate and make our virtual interactions succeed

Sept. 18, 2020
Don’t hang back during on-screen gatherings

If you're already up to your eyeballs in Zoom meetings, home schooling and/or getting the kids back to school, and countless other pandemic-related responsibilities, then I'm sorry if you're already doing what I'm about to suggest and for getting on your last nerve.

Anyway, many of the stories I've covered for Control in recent months have obviously had large COVID-19 components, notably this issue's "Strong links" cover article (p 24) on supplier and distributor responses to the pandemic and last month's "Must-have mobility" cover article (p 28) about how mobile technologies can help users cope with it.

The print and much larger online versions of these stories include many examples of the perseverance and creativity that pretty much everyone is exhibiting to alleviate COVID-19's impacts. The main message seems to be: thank goodness for Zoom and Microsoft Teams and the interfaces, software, and Wi-Fi and Ethernet links that make them possible.

However, it's never all good news, especially these days. So, even though virtual, face-to-face gatherings restore some of our personal interactions—and spur some of us to shave and put on nicer shirts—they still fall short of real, in-person meetings. Several sources report that, while they value online interactions and realize they're now essential, they're also aware it's not as easy to pick up on the physical cues and gestures that are a large part of how humans communicate. This may not be a terrible problem with one or two onscreen presences, but it quickly becomes one as participants multiply on displays that remain the same size.

Those sources add it's no longer simple to see the doubts on a coworker's face in a particular situation, and encourage them to share their concerns. Online meetings let more people fall through the cracks and shadows at the back of the class—and suddenly an old and ugly problem raises its head again.

I've come to call it "destructive reticence," but it's been expressed to me in dozens of forms. The joke that the extroverted engineer looks at your shoes while talking. Or the several long-ago interview subjects, who actually said, "I didn't get into engineering to talk to people." Or even the occasional process industry manager, who wanted a black box or other component to optimize their application, so they could avoid the necessary mess of interacting with and training their pesky staff members.

Everyone wants a magic bullet, but this level of holding back goes way deeper than simple convenience or laziness. It describes itself politely as not wanting to tell others what to do, but below the surface, it's more about not wanting to stick our necks out, frankly not caring enough about others, or just being plain scared.

In one of my earliest jobs in the mid-1980s, I was assigned to do simple man-on-the-street, question-of-the-day interviews and take photos outside a small-town supermarket, but instead I sat petrified in my car for 45 minutes agonizing about who was I to be asking anyone questions. I really needed my little $210 per week paycheck, so I got over my fears for the moment. More than 10,000 interviews later, I still hesitate for the same reason. No kidding.

I guess personal interaction just doesn't come naturally or easily to many of us, even if we're known for being chatterboxes. However, due to COVID-19 and social distancing, we need to overcome underlying fears again, be more willing to communicate, and make our virtual interactions succeed despite their onscreen and technical limits. All the high-definition screens, high-bandwidth networking, fanciest augmented-reality tools and best interactive software aren't worth anything if we won't talk to others and be forthright in sharing what we know.

As you can tell, I'm no expert, so I can only advise taking some deep breaths, and jumping off that diving board. Some visualization and mental preparation is always useful, but don't wait too long either. Good luck.

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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