Don’t Leave Empathy Behind Online–And That’s Harder Than You Might Think

leadership, communication, onlineWhen I think back to how naïve I was when I first encountered a portal that would let me communicate with other people all over the world through a computer screen…I want to reach through time and space and throw cold water all over her.

I don’t even want to be nice about it.

I think about what I’d say if I could send her an email from the future.

“No, young Marie, the internet will not bring about widespread knowledge, world peace, unity, universal education, and global understanding. Most people will just get mean on the internet. In fact, in 25 years, when researchers invent artificial intelligence robots, those robots will learn prejudices like racism and sexism just by copying what they’ve seen humans say to each other every day on the internet. Ya big loser.

That urge—to reach through the screen and do and say intemperate things to my younger, online self (in blunt, unvarnished ways I’d never dream of saying them to anybody face-to-face)—is called cyber disinhibition. And it’s at the root of cyberbullying, trolling, flaming, doxxing, “revenge porn,” and a host of other forms of internet-based cruelty and abuse.

With a full quarter-century of humans online behind us, we’re now fully living in a world in which the mature internet is embedded in daily life. We carry it with us in pockets and purses or wear it on our wrists. It’s never more than a few inches away. Most people are active participants on at least one social media platform, whether that’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or Snapchat. In this era, the effects of cyber-disinhibition are impossible to ignore.

In a recent article, the author of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, explains most people behave differently behind a computer than they do in person because of the way our brains are wired. Specifically, “Our brain’s social systems depend on immediate feedback, which text online lacks.”

At the root of people behaving…not at their best…behind a keyboard? A combination of factors. There are, Goleman explains, two kinds of empathy:

  • Emotional empathy–The unconscious form of empathy which relies on a lifetime of interpreting subtle, face-to-face cues, which usually that prevent mashed potatoes and stuffing from flying at each other, even during the most fractious of family Thanksgiving dinners
  • Cognitive empathy—The conscious, willful form of empathy that requires placing oneself in another’s shoes, which we must rely on in the absences of facial expressions, vocal tone, and other nonverbal cues that would normally guide interactions taking place online instead of in person

In addition, researchers have now firmly established that impulse control is dampened in online interactions without a face-to-face element (but that probably comes as no surprise to anybody who’s ever gotten into a Twitter war or gone a bit overboard in a video game chat.)

The Dangers of Cyber Disinhibition in the Workplace

So, how does all of this affect leaders and workers who rely on electronic communication every single day to get their jobs done? Are we looking at the ease and speed of email and text messaging as naively as I once looked at the internet itself, without considering its potential for negative effects in the workplace?

This nugget from Goleman stopped me in its tracks because I’ve felt its bite myself:

While emails and text messages are sufficient for transferring information, they have an innate negativity bias. Emails that senders identify as positive typically read as neutral to their recipients. And emails that senders describe as neutral often read as hostile.

One of my favorite clients is a dear, sweet, kind, teddy bear of a human being. But the moment he sits down at a keyboard, he becomes a monosyllabic barker. And for a while, I took his barrage of two- and three-word replies to four- and five-paragraph emails as evidence that he was irritated with me, or hadn’t read my emails fully because he was impatient, or because <fill in my own brain’s needless noodling here>.

But eventually, I stopped trying to read his mind, like an adult. And I confronted him about his cyberhabits. Gently. On a phonecall. Because that form of communication carried vocal tone cues and allowed us to talk about it. And it turned out he just feels crazy busy and unable to “write a lot” most of the time.

This was my opening  Confrontive I-Message:

“Jerry, when you reply to my  email that contains three questions for you, with a three-word reply  that only answers one of my questions, I get frustrated and am confused, and I still don’t know the answer to the other two questions,…so I can’t do what I need to do for you because I still need all of your input.”

As it turns out, almost nobody is naturally his or her “best self” online without putting a bit (or a great deal) of thought into it. Goleman’s article ends with a recommendation: Put the face back into high-stakes communication, through videoconferencing if face-to-face meetings aren’t possible.

Oh. And hold out. Researchers are working on that Star Trek holodeck, which will take virtual conferencing into the realm of 3D and should boost emotional empathy back into near-real-world realms—at least theoretically. (And then I guess we’ll just have to see if we decide to use that technology to cooperate nicely, or whether cyber-disinhibition will kick in there, as well.)

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