So how successful are we in the trade-off of real-life interactions for virtual ones?Leoni Boyle for Varsity

In this fast-paced, increasingly technologically dependent world we live in, it’s almost impossible to avoid virtual means of communication, especially in the current climate. At five months into lockdown in the UK, disconnecting from real life interactions and maintaining relationships via text, Facetime and Zoom (just to name a few) has become the normality for many. So how successful are we in the trade-off of real-life interactions for virtual ones?

Body Language

When deprived of face-to-face interaction, a key adaptation has been to adjust to the lack of body language as an emotional communicator, especially when conversing via text or on audio calls. Body language is such an important part of communicating that it makes texting feel like a very distant form of communication — emojis can only do so much to visualise emotions the way the body can.

Body stance, of which only about a quarter is visible in video calls, says a lot not only about how we are feeling, but how we want others to feel — sometimes even inducing a reaction in others. We are much more responsive to body language than we might think, our brains capable of interpreting facial and non-facial movements simultaneously. As a self-confessed gesticulator, I find it frustrating when trying to express myself on Messenger with the same emphasis as I would in person or to express when I'm feeling uncomfortable, anxious or stressed —feelings that are mostly communicated through body language.

Bodily reactions to adverse emotions, such as anxiety or stress, can be overwhelming at moments that are deemed crucial, such as during an interview or in musical performances. In moments of panic, fear triggers ‘fight or flight’ physiological responses such as sweating profusely or trembling. This visible reaction should make the feeling of discomfort clear for others without the need for verbal explanation— physical appearance is clearly reflective of emotional state.

"...effective communication relies on 7% verbal liking, 38% vocal liking, and 55% facial liking when intention does not match what is actually being said."

But what if it’s not so simple? What if the voice and body contradict one another? According to psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, when spoken word has the potential to give the wrong meaning if taken literally, we rely on our bodies to express the ‘silent message’. His book Silent Messages (1971) is still cited by many due to its revelatory research exploring how body language works to convey the underlying meaning behind what we’re saying. The most cited part of his theory is that effective communication relies on 7% verbal liking, 38% vocal liking, and 55% facial liking when intention does not match what is actually being said. For example, if you say “I’m fine” in a relaxed voice but with arms crossed and brows furrowed, the vocal and bodily aspects will contradict. In this instance, body language has a stronger message than the vocal aspect, leading the other person to realise that you are not, in fact, fine but potentially annoyed. Research surrounding the subliminal message is still vital for communications and is especially important if you are under the public eye and scrutinised for your actions. Body language has such a large impact that even slight alterations can change external perception.

Vocal Communication

Vocal pitch and tone of voice are central aspects of effective communication that are, thankfully, still possible to interpret when physically distanced. However, conveying the tone of voice accurately in text becomes challenging, especially when in conversation with someone unfamiliar. When we are used to someone’s mannerisms, our brains encode this information so we can imagine how they might react to a text.

The pitch and volume of our voices are main factors of prosody that indicate our feelings along with stress and rhythm, factors that all transfer nicely to music — a medium described with similar parameters (mainly pitch, dynamics, tempo, rhythm). Emotion is largely expressed through tone of voice alone rather than through verbal context. This study on speech prosody and harmony (2004) identifies how pitch and tempo of spoken communication might be compared to the way in which emotions are generally depicted in music. ‘Vocal indicators of emotional states’ are briefly summarised in a table which lists various emotions (such as Happiness, Confidence and Fear) and compares them under the parameters of ‘Pitch’ (‘Level’, ‘Range’, ‘Variability’), ‘Loudness’ and ‘Tempo’, concluding that verbal expression of most emotions directly match their musical depiction. In particular, the study notes that happiness shares the same indicators in both speech and musical depiction, especially in terms of pitch level (high yet varied) and tempo (fast), while negative emotions such as boredom and sadness are far more nuanced and not so easily mapped from speech to music in such a generalised way.


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The interaction between music and spoken word is not only explored by composers, but also by scientists in order to understand how the musicality of the voice aids quality of communication. Neuroscientists Meagan E. Curtis and Jamshed J. Bharucha researched the connection between the falling minor third in music and how this particular musical interval is a common indicator of sadness in speech. In their research, they asked nine actresses to read a script out loud, discovering that when they pretended to be sad, their recorded speech would fall by a minor third.

The frequency of the human voice is not only revealing of our moods but also our personality. Public speakers alter their voices so as to appear more charismatic according to a study by Dr. D’Errico et al. (2013). The study delves into the question of whether charisma relies solely upon what the speaker is actually saying, or whether it is recognised by others primarily in the physical aspects, such as the change in the tone of voice. It found that those with a higher-pitched voice are generally more extroverted while a lower-pitch suggests an introverted personality. The perception of charisma is therefore deemed to rely predominantly on the pitch of voice, as are many personality traits.

Much of what it means to be human involves our ability to interpret the many nuances of emotion through the way it is expressed through body language and tone of voice. It is exciting yet daunting that future technology might be capable of replacing real-life interactions altogether, such as through the use of holograms. As we become increasingly reliant on technology to communicate with others, it will be fascinating to see how much this progresses in the next decade, as the virtual encoding of emotional expression becomes easier and emotional understanding improves.