It’s March 14th 2020. Like most of the planet, I woke up to a viral video of Italians in Rome, in home quarantine, singing to each other beautifully across empty streets. The press is calling it “hauntingly beautiful” and I know why. It’s haunting us because it shows the basic truth that human beings are wired to connect, it’s why we’re on this planet and we will find any way to make that connection even if we cannot physically be in contact. For decades now, we have been a bit distracted from this plain truth. We were chasing other things and yes, we took Human Connection for granted. This video is the epitome of “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone” and that’s why it plagues us.
As someone who follows, studies and researches trends in Human Connection, it’s beyond a doubt that Human Connection will never be the same after Covid-19, much in in the same way that airport security was never the same after 9/11. So, what will our future look like? How will we connect differently? And can we still connect authentically through the lens of technology?
A Siena, città alla quale sono molto legato, si sta in casa ma si canta insieme come se si fosse per la strada. Mi sono commosso pic.twitter.com/IDPqNEj3h3
— David Allegranti (@davidallegranti) March 12, 2020
There isn’t a human alive who thinks the atmosphere at an NBA Grand Final will be as great without its audience. Humans high fiving, embracing, cheering and connecting over their common love of their team. Not one of my girlfriends who are currently entertaining their kids at home because schools in Dubai have been shut down, thinks their child will develop better without engaging with other children. However, I predict that the social distancing measures we are seeing will prevail long after the current crisis is over. So, what will our connection to other humans look like in the future?
As I have always said in my work on the topic prior to the virus, I don’t villainize technology. For anyone who has followed my work as a broadcaster and now a speaker for the last 15 years knows, I am a huge proponent of using technology as means of spreading not just the message of Human Connection but doing the connecting itself and I will explain more on how you can do that too later.
I learned that technology could be hugely beneficial in connecting us with those we love, and our community and I discovered this at 19 when my father was dying of terminal cancer. Let me explain, my mother has a rare degenerative disease which is literally eroding tissue in her brain. Four years ago she forgot the days of the week and the times of the day, two years ago she forgot my father had died in 2004 and they said eventually, she may forget who I am.
When I found out this news, my reaction was probably not what most people would do, I started paparazzi-ing my mother and documenting via social media and my phone, what I believed to be our last lucid moments together.
All of this because I just don’t have video of my Dad from 2004 because we didn’t have smart phones then. Anyone who has experienced profound personal loss knows that photos only give us so much. Over time, I have forgotten his mannerisms, the tone of my father’s voice and his smile and I was not about to let that happen to me for the second time, so I began recording my mother. I began recording so many moments with her and rewatching them when I returned to Singapore, reminding myself of our life-giving connection. This video of us connecting, went viral on LinkedIn, it showed me that even digitally, we can connect authentically and at a deeply human level. Many people were moved to tears as am I, every time I watch it. You can see the moment below when my mother goes from engaging with me as a stranger, to realising I am her daughter and I am there dancing with her.
Do you remember the early days of Facebook when we were overcome by a wave of nostalgia at being able to be connected with all of our high school or college buddies? In her book “Inheritance,” author Gabi Shapiro is able to find her biological father through a series of coincidences between Facebook and Ancestry.com. Unveiling a web of connections for herself and her children to a family she never knew existed. Technology and connection, I knew, were not mutually exclusive.
As an expatriate from the age of 21 (2005), I felt the loneliness and disconnection of not being able to see what was happening at home but in 2007 when I became a Facebook user, this all changed. All of a sudden I was able to connect simultaneously to my reality in Dubai or Singapore (or wherever I was living) and also to be connected to my family back home. It was a dream come true, liberating me from a lot of guilt. From there, I realised if we exercised the best choices with technology and got a little creative, it could compliment, in-person human connection like in my next story.
After my mother had her stroke, born of the disease I mentioned earlier, she forgot her Facebook password. Recently on her birthday, March 6th, I was hit with a wave of sadness as her dormant Facebook account is still connected with mind, it reminded me: “Today is Sandra Heng’s birthday.” A small cake with candles icon blinking at me in the top right hand corner of my Facebook profile. That Facebook account had reassured my mother I was healthy and safe when I was in Dubai. She had made friends with my friends. She had gotten to see what the Middle East looked like through my eyes. Then the lights went out. We tried to get her password after the stroke back but during the process, the disease beat us, her condition deteriorated so quickly, to the point where she can now no longer remember to charge even a device. My latest resort is having to call the nursing home main line to talk to her as her phone battery has gone flat.
Despite this, social media is still being used in my mother’s life to make my mother feel more connected and effectively extend her life. There is no shortage of studies showing that those people who feel more connected to their community live longer. Dr Lisa Berkman of the Harvard School of Health Sciences observed a group of 7,000 people over 9 years. Her results? Those that lacked quality social or community connections were three times more likely to die of medical illness than those with strong social ties.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” he opens his book with the story of the Sicilian-American village Roseto and how their lack of suicides, alcoholism, drug addiction and crime are the direct result of Human Connection. Here’s an extract from the study featured in the book:
“They looked at how the Rosetans visited one another, stopping to chat in Italian on the street, say, or cooking for one another in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town’s social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof…They counted twenty-two civic organisations in a town of just under two thousand people. . In transplanting the Paesani culture of Southern Italy to the hills of Eastern Pennsylvania, the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating themselves from the pressures of the modern world.”
In other words, Human Connection is really really good for your health and I argue the world needs its health more in March 2020 than ever before. So how can we replicate the social interactions of a village like Roseto in this era of Covid-19? How can we digitally replicate this feeling of connection when a handshake could be lethal? Well on the same day Facebook gave me a notification of my Mum’s birthday, I shared this video on Instagram of her International Women’s Day thoughts from two years earlier:
Now my mother had been a teacher at Raffles Girls School. Raffles Girls School is like the “Dead Poets Society” school of Singapore. It is where the nation’s most talented, female minds go to be educated. My mother’s former students are CEOs, surgeons and community leaders and my mother revelled my sister and I with stories of these students when we were growing up. Even though she taught there 40 years ago, it’s still a huge part of my mother’s identity. The memories of this time she retains because they are long term memories, in effect this part of her identity is how she connects with herself.
After I posted this video on my Instagram, the school’s alumni reshared it on their RGS Alumnae Page. The next morning, the day after my mother’s 73rd birthday, I woke up to these stories of connection. My mother, as I always knew, the original Human Connection Superhero.
I called my mother immediately; I knew this would be the best gift for her self-described “lonely heart.” As I read the messages to her, she sobbed. She felt remembered, acknowledged and CONNECTED once again to a wider community just as she had once empowered the voice of each of these young women and made them feel acknowledged.
There are a few things we can learn from this story on the future of Human Connection as digital communication increases. Firstly, this whole story had incredible connective and emotional impact on the women who she taught and the connection spanned two continents, Asia and Australia and yet just like our Italians in self- quarantine not one person met face-to-face during this story, yet it had deep connective value, not just for the people in the video but also for those viewing it. Even as you read this, via a digital medium, you and I are on some level connecting.
As a result, as you can see in the screenshots, some of the ladies will be seeing my Mum and fly to visit her. So, there will be face-to-face human connection that comes out of this and that’s just another example of what human connection via technology should look like, like a happy marriage, they should encourage each other.
I would like to see the digital always taking a secondary role to the face-to-face connection where possible and appropriate. My point is, that this story and that of our Italians singing in their homes, shows us it is absolutely possible to connect authentically through these mediums. It is 100% authentic, the emotions my mother, these students and I felt and possibly you feel when reading and viewing this story.
So how can we connect better? This is always the question I am asked by organisations when I speak but for the first time, my answer to this question is in flux as we pivot day to day with this crisis. The options with which we connect in person are shrinking daily as borders, schools and homes close their doors. If the future norm is increased social distancing measures, then connecting via phone, video chat, social media and email will become more important, so how will our human connection via these mediums heighten?
Authentic connection via any platform, one to one, on a stage or via technology requires one very vital ingredient. Disclosure. When we are vulnerable or share things that bring us shame, we connect on a much deeper level. So how do we disclose things in a corporate environment where such exposure may not be suitable? Well, any form of additional emotiveness is a form of disclosure, even at the most subtle levels. I would suggest bringing more of your full self to your communication even at work but more so in your personal life. Giving more information than before in how you write, speak and even add videos to your interactions. It is through the lens of this disclosure that I want you to see my predictions.
I predict we will all have to become much more emphatic in the way we communicate via email. You can see, from this article and in my speeches, I love to tell stories. Telling stories connects us at the deepest level, synching our brains at the same time throughout the process of listening to a story. However, I am not suggesting you tell full stories in work emails, I just suggest using some of the storytelling techniques. Go bigger with your adjectives and emotionality. These small nuances of language are the connection cues people use to remember there is a human on the other end of that email exchange. In our future, even the smallest sliver of humanity will become more comforting than you can ever imagine. Emojis in emails are permissible too if you work in a creative field.
We will use our voices so much more in the future. As a radio DJ for 13 years I don’t suffer from the cringe most people do when they hear their own voice (by the way the reason you feel you sound different from what you think you do in a recording is because your skull is a resonator for your voice, this is why you sound different to yourself but probably not to everybody else). I constantly send voice messages on WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, Instagram and even LinkedIn direct message. It probably doesn’t need to be explained but when we use our voice to communicate, we are disclosing tone and inflection which in turn conveys far more meaning than text. The more meaning, the more connection. Global speaking guru Tony Robbins is a big fan of sending emails in voice recording and we may just see the world follow Tony on this in time to come.
A great example of using voice to communicate humanity and connect more was demonstrated in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. Here in Singapore an incredible Grab Food delivery driver decided to send updates to his customer via voicenote and even produced them with background music. This is such an incredible example of how Human Connection will become more precious in our future post this outbreak. Even our everyday exchanges will be treasured. You can read this incredible story here.
We all, even the older generation, will get very used to using video. Video will not just be for Facetiming and connecting in support of our face-to-face interactions, I think in the short term (say 12 to 24 months) organisations will increase their use of video communication by over 80 per cent and after the tide goes out we will be using video in lieu of all non-essential meetings.
So why is video important besides the obvious limitations on meeting in person at the moment. Firstly, using video is a form of emotional exposure, you are risking so much more when you use video. Basically, it increases vulnerability and disclosure because people can see your face. This may sound scary to you but as someone who uses video a lot and for years both on and off public platforms, video is the next best thing to face-to-face, in person, human connection. That same emotional exposure we find scary, is also what expedites connection because it allows people to see us emote.
You’ve probably heard about the study by Dr Paul Ekman. He found that human beings are capable of making over 10,000 facial expressions. When we use video we allow far more meaning to be conveyed, even more than using our voice and as I say in my major keynote on the Power of Human Connection, “emotion gets connection into motion” when we want to connect quickly and with impact seeing someone emote does it best and video is the best way to do this in the current climate. You can use programs like BombBomb.com to send video emails to your friends and clients.
We will use apps in the future which allow for more meaningful connection then the social networks which are currently popular. Connection and Kindness specialist Mark Shapiro has created an app and is about to launch. Love Bomb allows people to “manage relationships, celebrate their favourite people and smile more daily.” This is the perfect marriage of technology and human connection.
Our video conferences will go to the next level! We will learn to turn our video conferences into a networker. Many events are being cancelled with the advent of Covid-19 and being transitioned into live streaming and we may see this extend for a while after the crisis. Virtual summits will become more sophisticated, like the newly-launched www.runtheworld.today allowing participants to network and freely-connect in a virtual, cocktail-like atmosphere after.
* 8th of April update: Since writing this article in March, the House Party app has become ubiquitous for allowing people to video conference and have fun while doing it.
The way we connect when we are actually together in-person will change too. We will use this time to have valuable, deep and authentic conversations. We will be more present and savour it. Instagrammer Koreen set up the account @Werenotreallystrangers and it now has well over 1 million followers. From here, she created the We’re Not Really Strangers card game which helps to facilitate deeper connection when meeting in person. Take a look below:
Technology married with Human Connection will continue to exist and the virus will make it even more imbued into our lives than ever before. One fact remains in our future though, we will have to work harder to create those moments of face-to-face human connection happen than we have ever had to before.
*I collect stories of Human Connection. Please email me to firstname.lastname@example.org if you or someone you know has an incredible story of connection. I would love to connect! You can find me online at www.simoneheng.com. On Instagram @simoneheng and Facebook too at simonehengofficial.