In Defense of Face Time
Each semester on my syllabus I let students know that some questions or concerns can’t be resolved via email. For example, someone stumped on a paper topic might benefit from a five minute brain storming session with me far more than exchanging five emails (which would actually take longer to type and read). And yet I have noticed that my office hours, and those of my colleagues, go mostly unvisited except for right before or after a major assignment.
I get this: it takes time to go to another building, find an office and talk to someone during the limited time when they are available. We save so much time doing lots of things electronically, like communicating with friends and family, banking, shopping, and even meeting new people, that physically going someplace seems like a real hassle, if it even occurs to us at all.
I’m guilty of this too. Recently while trying to resolve a unique issue with a bank, I was about to call an 800 number, when a family member asked why I didn’t just go to the branch only blocks from home and talk to someone face to face? Minutes later I was sitting down with a manager who said he would do his best to help me, and he has made several follow-up calls since.
Although electronic conveniences help us avoid face time (except for the Apple version, of course), there are several benefits to in-person communication that sociologist Erving Goffman can help us understand. In his essay “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction,” Goffman describes, “a person tends to experience an immediate emotional response to the face which a contact with others allows him; he cathects his face; his ‘feelings’ become attached to it.” In other words, how we feel about any given situation—and about ourselves—is directly related to reading others’ reactions to us.
Think about how this can be difficult when we can’t see someone’s face or hear the intonations in someone’s voice. That’s why the tone and underlying meanings of emails and texts can easily be misinterpreted and even upset recipients. How many times has a friend or family member read you an email or text that upset them in hopes that you can either commiserate or provide reassurance?
Goffman’s essay (and much of his other work) focuses on how important it is for us that other peoples’ perceptions of who we are remain consistent with our own self-perceptions. No doubt you have heard the expression “saving face,” which means that we work to maintain a sense of who we are in our interactions with others.
Perhaps that’s why some face-to-face interactions can be more productive: the other person has more at stake in our thinking highly of them so they can continue to think highly of themselves. My appreciation of the bank manager likely helped him retain the sense that he is good at what he does, while electronic communications or even phone calls likely make someone less personally invested. Who wants to disappoint someone directly to their face?
I suspect that’s why many students might not visit their professors in office hours: they don’t want to risk the emotional reaction of not living up to their sense of self if a professor’s face or body language expresses disappointment. This is often the case when students are failing a course or have missed a deadline; although a face-to-face interaction is in their best interest, since many professors will respond to the emotional investment that a visit suggests, the risk of rejection or condemnation keeps away those who need the interaction most. Goffman calls this “the avoidance process.”
Certainly not every face-to-face interaction is positive or productive. We’ve all experienced bad customer service in person, perhaps causing us even more outrage because we feel more personally disrespected when it happens in person. And of course some meetings between students and instructors do not go well either.
Goffman argues that we learn how to interact with others through everyday rituals, and that these rituals are important to us because they give us valuable reinforcement of our own identities. When you take away the in-person interaction, some information is invariably lost. I think about friends and family whose emails are terse and may be read as aloof, although in person they are anything but cold. Or online profiles that highlight an aspect of someone’s personality that doesn’t seem to reflect who they are overall. People are not necessarily intentionally misleading us with these kinds of communication, but by removing the face-to-face interactions we miss out on valuable data about who they are and how they are responding to us.