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Healing Space | Pandemic relationships: Communicating in the dark

The pandemic has changed the ways in which we connect, relate, flirt, date, trust, in unimaginable ways. Here’s how to navigate the new landscape.

May 30, 2021 / 10:50 AM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.

A wave of anxiety swept over social media mid-week in fear that Twitter or Facebook might be banned or restricted by the government. At a time when online connections have proven a lifeline, sometimes the only available one to those of us who remain locked down in our silos, the panic is a measure of how much our communication has been forever altered.

Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthWe have to trust strangers. The people who brought us or our family oxygen, medicines, food, who helped when someone died, are neighbours or completely unknown to us. We have had to drop our inhibitions and allow people past our defences. We have had to expose our most vulnerable identities.

This breaks us wide open, and allows us to see the value of interconnection. On the flip side, it also leaves us exposed to exploitation. But we have also learned not to generalise. There are some who take advantage, but also others who step up. We have learned to trust, but with discretion. We have learned to temper, but hold on to our faith in others.

We have to communicate in the dark. The audio app Clubhouse is representative of our new disembodied connections. With the telephone, typically, you spoke to people you already knew. You retained a wariness of unknown numbers. This is an essential conditioned mistrust; it’s why we don’t open strange email links. With evolving social mediums, we have to trust first, know later. The reason we feel so disoriented by this is because we are functioning without non-verbals.

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In the 1960s, Professor Albert Mehrabian at UCLA, also author of the book Silent Messages, found that nonverbal communication matters significantly more than verbal communication. This has variously been misrepresented as a 93% or 98% statistic; the reality is a bit more complex. In reality, what he said was 55% of what you convey when you speak comes from body language, 38% from tone of voice, and 7% from words.

However, here’s the thing, you cannot trust unless you are vulnerable. Research finds that you trust when you need something. Which is why wealthy people trust others the least. The position of need becomes why we trust each other more. We have made our individual weakness our collective strength.

We have to micro-read all the sub text. The absence of the non-verbal make us reliant on the smallest of language cues – an accent, a high pitch, a quaver. You remember Gigi in He’s Just Not That Into You? –constantly guessing if the guy liked her or didn’t? Multiply that by a thousand. In the absence of non-verbals, you now have to read the cues and guess. Now, every set of green ticks, delivery receipt, missed call, or like matters. App-based dating is a special minefield right now, and every match who doesn’t text back is playing havoc with your self-esteem. Parents expect timely call backs. Or the converse also may be true; in this disorienting landscape, you are micro-reading people in your physical space and being sensitive to the smallest non-verbal communication. So, a shrug feels like contempt.

We have to say what we mean. We are a society built on polite facades. We could once get away with telling people we are fine, or promising to meet for lunch, or call. Now, we have to drop the posturing. In the absence of the tangible feedback mechanism, every communication matters. Your friend who had a work interview once said they were fine but you could see they were fidgeting or had a furrowed brow. Now, the cyclone hit, you forgot to call back, and your friend imagines the worst. You don’t pick up a call, and your parents know you are hiding a low mood. On Zoom calls, we read our colleagues’ micro expressions or miss the dimensions of what they are saying. Politeness matters so much more right now. There is nowhere to hide, so we feel exposed.

The pandemic has opened us up to the value of staying connected. We realise how social we truly are. While it’s been hard, we’ve also gained valuable lessons in fine-tuning the way we connect. One thing is evident now: we need each other.

Pandemic -BOX
Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of Sit Your Self Down, a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and the forthcoming Anitya, a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]

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