Top 5 Social Skills for Virtual Interactions

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April 23, 2020

Whether you are working remotely and collaborating with colleagues from home, engaging in distance learning for school, or having virtual check-ins, hangouts, and parties with friends and families, virtual gatherings have become part of our new normal. We may be inclined to think that because we are not interacting face to face with people in the physical world, we aren’t using social skills to engage with other people.  However, the social skills we use to engage with others are just as important in an online world as they are in person.  In fact, many of the social skills that we use when interacting with others in the real world are the same as those we use online.  As we’ve mentioned before, social skills are highly dependent on the context - so while there are universal rules that almost everyone follows, there are slight changes that occur depending on the setting, context, and people we engage with.  As we move towards virtual interactions in almost all areas of our lives, let’s take a moment to consider the social rules that apply to the various virtual contexts we may find ourselves engaging in. 

1. Background Appearance

Being aware of what’s in the background of our virtual space is a fantastic opportunity to practice perspective taking skills. Before you start a video call, take a look around you.  Take the perspective of the people watching your video.  What will they see in the background? For example, is there a dog  in the background? A cat walking in front of your webcam? Young children or siblings wiggling and dancing behind you? A poster that you wouldn't want your boss or teacher to see? Sometimes it’s unavoidable that we have distractions in our virtual backgrounds, and people generally accept these unexpected distractions here and there. But as good social communicators, we can be proactive in making sure that we reduce background distractions during virtual interactions by: moving to a location in our homes with a little more privacy, a distraction free backdrop, and making plans with our housemates to respect our space.  Online video platforms have even added virtual backgrounds we can use to help us.  And if our proactive steps don’t help? Don’t hesitate to turn off your video for the sake of social appropriateness. 

2. Personal Appearance

Personal appearance is a social skill that is typically not discussed in face to face interactions.  When we know we have to leave the house to meet someone or attend a meeting, chances are we look the part.  We don’t need to be reminded to get dressed, take a shower, and appear presentable.  Some people may think that because we are stuck at home, we can put personal grooming on hold. We can do our best to have an appearance that isn’t out of the ordinary.  When you attend a virtual meeting for school or work,  be ready to have your video turned on! You may think that you are safe in your pajamas, but what if your boss or teacher needs to see you? If you’re attending a virtual happy hour with friends or having a casual check-in with family, the appearance rules may be slightly different.  Always consider matching your appearance to the context you are participating in. People can create a new impression of you anytime, so be mindful of what you visually represent. 

3. Mute Your Mic

When we have face to face conversations with others, we typically don’t have to think about outside distractions, because the other people in the conversation or group will experience the same things as us. But the move to online interactions is a little different as people are stuck in their homes with all of the distractions that come with this.  For example, maybe a family member or roommate starts talking to us while we’re on a call.  Perhaps someone turns on a loud appliance like a blender or television.  Or maybe we need to sneeze, cough, or excuse ourselves to the bathroom.  These are all examples of distractions that don’t need to be announced or included in our virtual interactions.  We can casually turn our mute button on to manage the situation appropriately until we are ready to re-engage in the conversation.  When we do take the time to mute our mics’, the other people in our groups will think positive thoughts about us being competent social communicators.  

4. Think With Your Eyes

Keep in mind that our eyes give other people information about what we are thinking. For example,  if we are looking down for an extended period of time, others may catch on to the fact that our brains are not thinking about the topic at hand. While it may be tempting to look at our phones, check social media, or open another browser, consider what your eyes are showing others. Ensure that your camera is set up with your face and eyes in the field of view, and that you are looking at the person who is speaking.  We also don’t want to stare directly at the camera for extended periods of time either, as  this can make other people feel uncomfortable  Practice gaze aversion (looking away here and there, and looking back at the camera), so as to make your peers feel comfortable and give your eyes a break.  Be mindful of the angle of your camera, use facial expressions to show emotion, and practice good eye contact.

5. How do I leave??

Did you know that when we leave an in-person conversation, there is a specific set of rules we follow to politely leave? We wait for a pause, give a specific cover story or reason for leaving, tell the person you’ll see them later, say goodbye, and walk away.  The rules for leaving a virtual interaction are not much different.  While we can’t physically walk away, and while there might be some specific nuances for leaving a video chat, we can certainly follow the other steps.  The biggest challenge in leaving a video chat may be coming up with a cover story for leaving.  The cover stories we use to leave real life conversations may not apply to leaving virtual conversations.  For example, using cover stories like “I have an appointment to get to” or “I have to go run a few errands” may not apply as well as cover stories like, “My battery is about to die, I have another zoom call to get on, my parents are calling me for dinner, or I have to go to bed.” When you need to leave a virtual interaction, try the following: wait for a pause in the conversation, give a cover story, tell them you’ll talk to them soon, say goodbye, and leave the call.  If you’re in a large group meeting, consider giving your cover story in the chat function of the screen rather than interrupting the entire meeting.  

While the above social rules are a good reminder of how to be competent social communicators in a virtual environment, keep in mind that we are all still learning how to interact and engage with each other in this new way.  Everyone comes from different backgrounds of knowledge, skill, and practice.  If you notice your classmates, colleagues, friends, or family members making unexpected social errors, don’t call them out during a virtual interaction with others. Wait until a less socially vulnerable time to bring it up, or better yet, send them this article! Understand that everyone is learning and growing during this challenging time, and we can support each other by modeling good social skills online and having compassion for each other while we  navigate this new virtual world. 

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