Are changing norms of interaction altering how we perceive one another?

A little over five years ago I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication and a minor in psychology. I fancied myself fairly savvy regarding the ways in which people communicate. Now, as my five-year reunion weekend just wound to a close, I realize how far from static human communication truly is.

In 2009, Twitter was still relatively undiscovered. It hadn’t been all that long since Facebook was opened to non-college students. Instagram wasn’t a thing. The term “social media” wasn’t widely used.

In 2014, social media has completely reshaped the way average people, companies and governments communicate. It is a part of everyday life for many of us, and if you’re like me, you never saw it coming.

It is easy to think we have modern communication all figured out. We probably don’t.

As I’ve matured, I’ve realized the folly of thinking I (or we as a society, for that matter) have human communication wholly understood. Rather, we must comprehend that the way in which we interact is fluid, and it will forever be a product of our environments, technological tools and individual personalities.

Acceptance of fluidity does not preclude us from paying careful attention to trends and taking the time to read the metaphorical tea leaves, such as they are, however. We can deduce based on simple observation, for instance, that our communication on a macro level is becoming increasingly digital in nature. The number of face-to-face conversations we engage in by choice is dwindling in favor of typed “talking”. If the birthday/Halloween party comprised of 30 selfie-snapping eighth graders I chaperoned this past weekend (which you should never do, by the way) is any indication, we can expect more Facetime than face time from the coming generation, too.

Observing trends is a start; analyzing them is the necessary next step. So, what does increasingly digitalized communication mean for us?

A lot of things, probably. But one hypothesis I would posit is that it is changing the way we form opinions of one another and gauge each other’s emotions. Nonverbal cues, whether body language (kinesics), touch (haptics), distance during conversation (proxemics), or vocal traits such as pitch, tone and rhythm of speech are key indicators that humans use when judging the emotions of others. When in-person conversations continually give way to more digital discussions, however, we may turn to different cues to determine how acquaintances on the other end of increasingly distant relationships are feeling.

Take, for example, this recent text message conversation I had:

B: “Hey man, how you doin?”

L: “Doing alright; you?”

B: “I’m fine. Just wanted to make sure you were ok.”

L: “Yeah, I am. Why do you ask?”

B: “Just saw the music you been listening to on Spotify recently. Seems like you’ve been a bit down.”

Hmm. Until my friend messaged me a few weeks ago, it had never occurred to me that the songs I listen to may be taking form as socialized emotional cues. To me, listening to a “Rainy Day Tunes” playlist on Spotify when there is writing to be done on a gloomy day is calming. To someone else seeing my Spotify feed, it may send a totally different message. If I don’t encounter that person very often in the real world, that information could be all they have with which to form a current perception of me.

It makes me wonder what other unintentional messages we may all be sending to one another in the digital age. It also makes me wonder what sort of subconscious judgments I might be making about others based on the proliferated data we use as proxies for natural human interaction.

Sure, I know enough as a professional to be careful what I write on the Internet. I’m also careful not to post photos or videos that might cause trouble. But what else am I posting that influences how others see me? Songs on Spotify, apparently. What about locations statuses on Swarm? Beer check-ins on Untappd? Gaming information on Steam?

The answer is likely “Much more than I realize.” And the same likely applies to you.

If there’s one thing we know about human psychology, it’s that our behaviors and cognition are influenced far more by subconscious factors than we might think—check out “You Are Not So Smart” for some great examples. It’s something worth keeping in mind as you continue to make your way in our increasingly connected world.

You may be surprised what you find.

Lukas Treu is Content Architect at AKHIA.