“Truly different behaviors require truly distinct situations.”
Those are the words of Joshua Meyrowitz from No Sense Of Place: The Impact Of Electronic Media On Social Behavior. The real estate world is feeling the negative social impact of that concept as much as any other industry. Real estate is a relationship business. Real estate is a trust business. And that trust has been eroded by two distinct phenomenon related to the rise of the Internet: Loss of information control and the erosion of opportunities for nonverbal communication.
The Loss Of Information Control
“Our increasingly complex technological and social world has made us rely more and more heavily on ‘expert information,’ but the general exposure of ‘experts’ as fallible human beings,” Meyrowitz writes, “has lessened our faith in them as people.”
Why? Because, in general, authority is strengthened when a group holds the keys to information, like listing data in the MLS, when information systems are isolated. Authority is weakened when information systems are merged, when the general public can access the information.
“When high status persons lose control over information that assured their status, all concerned are likely to sense that a metaphysical change has taken place, a deterioration of the individuals and of society. If a doctor is not familiar with a recent miracle cure that his or her patient has seen on television, the assumption may be that he or she is no longer a good doctor—indeed, that doctors are not as good as they used to be. And this feeling may be felt by both patient and doctor.”
It has happened to doctors on some level and it has happened to real estate professionals on a larger scale. The ability to access information previously held captive by the industry has opened a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences, not the least of which is a deterioration of a feeling of authority and trust in real estate agents and brokers. And that’s merely the beginning.
The Erosion Of Nonverbal Communication
The distance between speaker and hearer changes the importance of the different elements of communication. “When nonverbal information is weak or absent, the verbal information becomes more dominant,” Meyrowitz explains. “The attention to a speaker’s verbal message, therefore, varies with interpersonal distance. The closer the distance between people, the less attention paid to the verbal message.”
In writing, actual words become more important, and the work required to diferentiate using that medium becomes greater. Writing is hard. Good writing, writing that can truly distinguish one person from another, is even harder. As our online interaction continues to move toward soundbites of information via status updates on Facebook, Twitter and other online venues, our writing moves from long form content that can attempt to elicit emotions, to contextually neutral, disconnected pieces of information.
In this way, the Internet has provided both a means of closing gaps and widening gaps. It hints of “engagement” but falls short for those who begin to trust that the “likes” and “retweets” they give in the public spaces are equivalent to the feedback they give a real human being in private spaces. Those who take the path of least resistance, doing the simplest “engagement” act, will not be rewarded. Those actions don’t differentiate.
When “information” becomes the dominant form of communication, differentiation is made more difficult. The Internet leads us to believe we have come closer together, but when our ability to really know someone and to experience the fullness of communication is diminished, the relative distance between us has actually increased. While time and distance no longer matter in our networked culture, really connecting with another human being still does.
Our focus needs to be on reducing the distance between us. When you reduce the distance between people communicating, words become less important and the expressive cues become dominant. When we are face-to-face, even silence has meaning and conveys significant pieces of information that trigger feelings of trust and like-ability. We connect on a different level.
“Digital communications convey “content” messages,” Meyrowitz writes, “while analogic expressions convey “relationship” messages. That is, digital communications can be about things in general, while analogic messages tend to reveal how the persons emitting them feel about people and things around them or about the digital messages they are speaking or hearing.”
In this way, those who rely too heavily on the “consistency” of their online message or in their printed material in the presentation of their brand miss the mark in understanding the importance of the delivery of that information by each individual in the organization. They fail to recognize the quantum nature of brand.
This is why shared values become so critical in establishing the real brand of any organization, or the personal brand of any real estate agent. Your values are your true brand. “A person can lie verbally much more easily than he or she can “lie” non verbally,” Meyrowitz rightly explains. So non-verbal, non-written expressive communication, because it is easier to understand and more trusted, overshadows the carefully crafted branding messages.
So, it’s not the brochure that matters as much as the behavior of the person delivering the brochure. It’s not the delivery of the contract itself, but the way the contract is delivered. The nonverbal cues dominate in this situation. This is where trust is really solidified.
Change Must Occur At the Local Broker Level
The blurring of lines between public and private information has made visible what was once invisible. As a result, The need to create a REAL distinction between the professional and the amateur, consumer is required. I believe the responsibility for this is best handled at scale by a broker/owner at a local level.
Actions speak louder than the words. The Internet has not changed that truth. In fact, the Internet has made the power of that truth more evident by effectively reducing the relative number of opportunities to experience that truth. “Electronic media create ties and associations that compete with those formed through live interaction in specific locations, ” Meyrowitz says. “Live encounters are certainly more “special” and provide stronger and deeper relationships, but their relative number is decreasing.”
We can change this. But we’ll need to shift our focus. “The networked culture is very young,” Sherry Turkle writes in Alone Together. “Attendants at its birth, we threw ourselves into its adventure. This is human. But these days, our problems with the Net are becoming too distracting to ignore. At the extreme, we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place.”
We need to remove technology from its pedestal and place it in the toolbox. We need to place the art of influence and face-to-face communication back on that pedestal in local real estate and move to focus our attention on increasing the relative number of opportunities for “live encounters” that result in more direct paths to trust.
Internet tools can lead us to more meaningful encounters. They won’t, however, if we continue to take the path of least resistance and allow these tools to coerce us into behaviors that make us more same than different, behaviors that eliminate the barriers of distance while disconnecting us from those closest to us. They will not allow us to do this if we don’t redirect their power toward situations that provide the opportunity for more than just digital communication.
We are at a crossroad. We are beginning to understand the full impact of electronic media on society and on real estate. It’s time to stop, focus, and decide which way to go next.
Creative Commons photo from Flickr via David Roseborough
Pretty heady stuff for a Thursday morning, but thanks to coffee, I made it through.
Some thoughts and questions:
1. Do you think that humans will evolve to compensate? Sure it’s a long process, but the influence for a bit of natural selection is there. I’m not suggesting some sort of Borg like robotic future, but rather that we will learn to adapt and become more social via verbal (written) cues, where before we relied on the non-verbal heavily. I’m not sure you or I will see a complete shift in our lifetime, but I have to wonder if that’s not a possibility.
2. Your mention of “likes” and “retweets” is not lost on me. I opined long ago (and it involved MFFO) that our culture of clicking has made us feel like we’re doing more good than we are. We change our Facebook profile photos and share the latest sad story, but do we really step up and do anything? We watch videos on YouTube and make them famous, but few still get out there and do something to change the world – whether physically or financially.
3. As we throw more time into our online social interactions, I have found that those close to us…people we really know, become more important. While my circle of friends is far and wide on the internet, I know only a handful of people that I truly interact with on a face to face scale (this is not a result of being an online hermit, but rather my own personal values of friendship). This small group however has become more important to me, more valued, and more trusted. These relationships have grown stronger. In a sense and to borrow an old phrase, I know who my true friends are.
Be curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks for kicking my brain into high gear this morning.
Good questions, my friend. Let me see if I can address them.
1. Yes and no. I think we’re already adapting. And our brains are almost certainly being rewired to deal with how information is presented to us. I’m reading another interesting book that deals with that specifically, “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr. In it he argues that the internet is “chipping away at our capacity for concentration and contemplation.” Like Carr, “my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it.” We are certainly rewiring our brains. Will we adapt. Of course we will, but I don’t believe it will involve a moving away from the kinds of “real” connection I’m describing or lessing the value of non-verbal communication in ultimately cementing trust.
2. I think Matthew Shadbolt’s piece on “Slacktivism” here speaks to that quite nicely. And while I do tend to agree that we are more inclined to think we’ve done something by hitting a like button, there are benefits to using social media to distribute ideas. The burden falls on each organization to figure out how to break people out of the cycle of passive involvement to active involvement.
3. The same is true for me. And it hints at the point I’m trying to make, which is that the connections we make online can only be taken so far, both in a business sense and a personal sense. To move past that point, which may or may not be required, depending on the business, the relationship is going to have to move out of that situation to truly be different. Real estate, as it is operated today, fits the model of a business where this movement may still be necessary.
My objective is to get brokers to focus on the behaviors that impact their brand, the reputation they have in the marketplace, and craft strategies that improve that reputation by holding the people who operate under their brand accountable to the values that drive how that brand is identified. I believe that the place where brand really gets formed is at the action level, and in local real estate, that means the direct actions of people working together in a transaction and the communications and behaviors that lead to those transactions, many of which are not Net related. This, of course, may change dramatically, but today, I believe this is true.
I don’t think you’ll be surprised to know that I read this and said “yep.” I might have to pick up Carr’s book for a little light reading. I do find it interesting that the internet is an excellent gateway if used properly. I probably wouldn’t have ever crossed paths with you pre-internet, but since we “met” online, we were then able to make a better connection face to face. It’s all about utilizing the tools you’re given.
Jeff – this post came at just the perfect moment. I am giving a talk at Thesa’s conference this weekend, and the gist of the presentation mirrors your thoughts here – “we are so emeshed in our connections that we neglect each other”….”we need to remove technology from the pedestal and put it back into the toolbox”….I hope you don’t mind if I make reference to this article? Your quotes perfectly surmise what I am attempting to communicate!…
I’d be honored, Rich. And I agree that what we’re talking about here is a striking of balance between the perception of “Old School” behaviors and “New School” behaviors. It’s the false sense of real connection that concerns me most. I think some feel they are accomplishing more than they really are. It’s important to understand the role of the light touches that the social web provides.
As an industry, we desperately need to strike a balance of Old School with New School. We need to leverage and control the technology we employ, not allow it to control and absorb/distract us. While the use of technology and social media engagements can help us to connect and interact within our sphere more efficiently, it also creates a laziness and a false sense of connection.
Yikes Jeff…this is some “deep” stuff! But I can fly over it and get the the fact that, we (including ME) hide behind the computer screen WAY to much. Part of my 2013 Business Plan (called BP-13) is to get back to networking events. Have my REAL body and face seen more often to get that connection with people. Then carry that connection on-line via social media. I also read another piece about your SOI – Sphere of INFLUENCE which I know I don’t follow. Are those people in your SOI really able to INFLUENCE people into working with you. It will help me approach relationships differently.