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“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