In the 2nd week of March 2020, we held our weekly Toastmasters meeting at the regular location. Two days later, all club members received an email that read, “Our meeting location has closed down indefinitely. Therefore, starting next week, the meetings will be on Zoom. Make sure to sign up for a Zoom account.”
Suddenly, it felt like the world had gone quiet.
It took a pandemic for the majority of us to open our eyes and make cozy with virtual technologies. It was a swift adaptation. Quick adaptation has never been our strong suit. We never rush to adapt, rather more inclined to resist the change. For us, adaptations and changes take time. It is a gradual and progressive process. When was the last time you change a habit at a snap?
Yet, when we were forced to isolate ourselves, we sought out the best ways to connect with our friends and family. Why? Because even though humans like to think as individuals we want to act in collectives. This is a 12-thousand-year-old habit! I'm going to come back to this topic in a minute. The disconnection from society, brought on by the pandemic, scared us. That fear forced us to immediately deal with virtual technologies.
We were very fortunate that the existing technologies were sophisticated enough to live up to our expectations. For that, we owe a debt of gratitude to all those techies. These technologies connected us with family, friends, and strangers from near and far. The new medium gave us a wider audience with at-home convenience. The benefits of virtual technology were a blessing.
Yet to me, as a Toastmaster and public speaker, there is no denying the value or the significance of in-person meetings. I have said myself and heard from many who say, “Let’s get together and chat. I need to get out of this place”. What we are referring to here is our inner desire to remove ourselves from separation and to become social.
Let’s talk about our attraction to act in collectives. To do that we need to rewind 12,000 years in time. We are at the end of the Stone Age. In the early days of human evolution, we were hunters and gathers. We were nomads and scattered until we discovered farming. At this point, the humans settled down and established communities. It was such a substantial change; it is regarded as a revolution! (Neolithic Revolution or the Agricultural Revolution). Communities became societies. Society became an inseparable part of our DNA. We sought out connections and relationships with others. We understood the value of bonding with others. Especially within like-minded people. All of this blossomed in close proximity. Now you understand our desire to hang around with people.
If you look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, once we fulfill the basic needs such as food water, and safety, we need belongingness and love. Humans are communal beings, designed to live in relationships with and communicate with each other. Our need to be heard and understand, in close range, is in our DNA.
The psychological effects of social isolation can affect your immune system. I’m told that the body’s anti-viral response is suppressed when we are isolated or socially disconnected. The culprits are loneliness and stress. Both of these are results of social disconnection or distancing. Disconnection damages our mental health. Socially isolated people are less able to deal with stressful situations.
I came across a statistic that shows the number of people who report feeling lonely has more than doubled since 1980. Think about this. In the present, that number should be zero with all the social mediums that are available to us. “We boast we are connected. We have thousand friends, or thousand followers or thousand connections”. Yet, the number of loneliness claims keep climbing.
I want to tell you that a verbal or visual contact through a secondary medium is no substitute for a one-on-one meeting occupying the same ground.
To me, an in-person meeting is a meaningful relationship. Close contacts lead to building reliable rapports. There is a strong sense of camaraderie when we are together in person. It is easy to read and relate to facial, body, and verbal clues when we are present. Our five senses are fully awake in the presence of others. That means we get to know each other’s personalities, intentions, and true feelings. We feed off of others' energy. There is a unique opportunity to leave a lasting impression. We act with vigor. The attraction brings us excitement and our relationships become stronger.
Here is something else. Have you heard of the 7-38-55 rule? The rule was created by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian. He claims that, 7% of a message is received via spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body and facial expressions. How do you think this affects your speech, on Zoom vs. in-person?
The virtual platform was meant to be a temporary solution. An emergency solution.
Thinking strictly as Toastmasters, we are meant to give speeches, table topics, and evaluations standing up in front of an audience. By being online we have broken that tradition or the most essential premise. We give speeches, table topics, and evaluations sitting down. We look at others in a tiny window on a computer screen. We are focused on speaking to a microphone, or a screen. We don’t talk to individuals; instead, we talk to a group of tiny windows on a screen. We don’t hear the clap; instead, we see a bunch of hands waving. We don’t see their reactions. Then the meeting ends, we say goodbye and shut the program down. There are no handshakes, hugs, fist bumps, or small chats. The personal connection has been completely weakened.
Fortunately, there is a best of the both world solution! Hybrid meetings. To take that next step, we must act with the same urgency that we adapted to virtual technologies. We need to understand that some are afraid of meeting in person due to being infected with Covid. They have their reasons. That’s OK. At the same time, we must realize that there are a large number of Toastmasters or public speakers who want to meet in person. We have our reasons.
Emotional connections are extremely necessary for building successful social relationships. Virtual meetings offer way less quality time with anyone. In virtual platforms, complacency grows. Meaningful relationships do not.
So as a Toastmaster, ask yourself, are you still here just to propagate an organization, or are you there to avail what Toastmasters has to offer you? Are you still achieving what you came to Toastmasters for? Keep in mind Toastmasters’ motto, is ‘Where Leaders Are Made.’
Leaders are never made by sitting behind a computer.