Are We Killing Politeness?

One of the many casualties of our changing culture seems to be politeness. When the President of the United States is the poster child for rude behavior, it’s tough for politeness to survive. This is especially true in the no-holds-barred, digitally distanced world of social media.

I consider myself to be reasonably polite. Being so, I also expect this in others. Mild rudeness makes me anxious. Excessive rudeness makes me angry. This being the case, I am troubled by the apparent decline of civility. So today I wanted to take a look at politeness and why it might be slipping away from us.

First of all, we have to understand the politeness is not universal. What is considered polite in one culture is not in another.

Secondly, being polite is not the same as being friendly. Or empathetic. Or being respectful of others. Or being compassionate, according to this post  from The Conversation. There is a question of degree and intent here. Being polite is a rather unique behavior that encompasses both desirable and less desirable qualities. And that begs the question: What is the purpose of politeness? Is a less-polite world a good or a bad thing?

First, let’s look at the origin of the world. It comes from the Latin “politus,” meaning “polished — made smooth.” Just in case you’re wondering, “politics” does not come from the same root. That comes from the Greek word for “citizen” — “polites.”

One last etymological nugget. The closest comparison to polite may be “nice,” which originates from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant”. Take that for what it’s worth.

This idea of politeness as a type of social “polish” really comes from Europe — and especially Britain. There, politeness was linked with class hierarchies. Being polite was a sign of good breeding — a dividing line between the high-born and the riffraff. This class-bound definition came along with the transference of the concept to North America.

Canada is typically considered one of the most polite nations in the world. As a Canadian who has traveled a fair amount, I would say that’s probably true.

But again, there are variations in the concept of politeness and how it applies to both Canadians and Americans.

When we consider the British definition of politeness, you begin to see how Americans and Canadians might respond differently to it. To understand that is to understand much of what makes up our respective characters.

As a Canadian doing much of my business in the U.S. for many years, I was always struck by the difference in approaches I found north and south of the 49th parallel. Canadians businesses we met with were unfailingly polite, but seldom bought anything. Negotiating the prospect path in Canada was a long and often frustrating journey.

American businesses were much more likely to sign a contract. On the whole, I would also say they were friendlier in a more open and less-guarded way. I have to admit that in a business setting, I preferred the American approach.

According to anthropologists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, who have extensively researched politeness, there is negative and positive politeness. Negative politeness is concern with adhering to social norms, often by deferring to someone or something else.

This is Canadian politeness personified. Our entire history is one of deference to greater powers, first to our colonial masters — the British and French — and, more recently, from our proximity to the cultural and economic master that is the U.S.

For Canadians, deferral is survival. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said about the U.S., “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Negative politeness is a way to smooth out social friction, but there is good and bad here. Ideally it should establish a baseline of trust, respect and social capital. But ultimately, politeness is a consensus of compromise.  And that’s why Canadians are so good at it.  Negative politeness wants everything to be fair.

But then there is positive politeness, which is more American in tone and nature. This is a desire to help others, making it more closely linked to compassion. But in this noble motive there is also a unilateral defining of what is right and wrong. Positive politeness tries to make everything right, based on the protagonist’s definition of what that is.

The two sides of politeness actually come from different parts of the brain. Negative politeness comes from the part of the brain that governs aggression. It is all about applying brakes to our natural instincts. But positive politeness comes from the part of the brain that regulates social bonding and affiliation.

When you understand this, you understand the difference between Canadians and Americans in what we consider polite. For the former, our definition comes handed down from the British class-linked origins, and has morphed into a culture of compromise and deferral.

The American definition comes from many generations of being the de facto moral leaders of the free world.

We (Canadians) want to be nice. You (Americans) want to be right. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not the same thing. Not by a long shot.

What Trump has done (with a certain kind of perverse genius) has played on this national baseline of compassion. He has wantonly discarded any vestiges of politeness and split the nation on what it means to be right.

But by eliminating politeness, you have also eliminated that governor of our behavior. Reactions about what is right and wrong are now immediate, rough and unfiltered.

The polish that politeness brings — that deferral of spoken judgement for even a brief moment in order to foster cooperation — is gone. We have no opportunity to consider other perspectives. We have no motive to cooperate. This is abundantly apparent on every social media platform.

In game theory, politeness is a highly successful strategy commonly called “tit for tat.” It starts from assuming a default position of fairness from the other party, continuing to cooperate if this proves to be true, and escalating to retaliation if it’s not. But this tactic evolved in a world of face-to-face encounters. Somehow, it seems less needed in a divided world where rudeness and immediate judgement are the norm.

Still, I will cling to my notions of politeness. Yes, sometimes it seems to get in the way of definitive action. But on the whole, I would rather live in a world that’s a little nicer and a little more polite, even if that seems foolish to some of you.

The Potential Woes of Working from Home

Many of you have now had a few months under your belt working virtually from home rather than going to the office. At least some of you are probably considering continuing to do so even after COVID recedes and the all clear is given to return to normal. A virtual workplace makes all kinds of rational sense – both for employees and employers. But there are irrational reasons why you might want to think twice before you fully embrace going virtual.

About a decade ago, my company also went with a hybrid virtual/physical workplace. As the CEO, there was a lot I liked about it. It was a lot more economical than leasing more office space. It gave us the flexibility to recruit top talent in areas where we had no physical presence. And it seemed that technology was up to the task of providing the communication and work-flow tools we needed to support our virtual members.

On the whole, our virtual employees also seemed to like it. It gave them more flexibility in their workday. It also made it less formal. If you wanted to work in pajamas and bunny slippers, so be it. And with a customer base spread across many time zones, it also made it easier to shift client calls to times that were mutually acceptable.

It seemed to be a win-win. For awhile. Then we noticed that all was not wonderful in work-from-home land.

I can’t say productivity declined. We were always a results-based workplace so as long as the work got done, we were happy. But we started to feel a shift in our previously strong corporate culture. We found team-member complaints about seemingly minor things skyrocket. We found less cohesion across teams. Finally – and most critically – it started to impact our relationships with our customers.

Right about the time all this was happening, we were acquired by a much bigger company. One of the dictates that was handed down from the new owners was that we establish physical offices and bring our virtual employees back to the mothership for the majority of their work-week. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the negative consequences of going virtual so I initially fought the decision. But to be honest, I was secretly happy. I knew something wasn’t quite right. I just wasn’t sure what it was. I suspected it might have been our new virtual team members.

The move back to a physical workplace was a tough one. Our virtual team members were very vocal about how this was a loss of their personal freedom. New HR fires were erupting daily and I spent much of my time fighting them. This, combined with the inevitable cultural consequences of being acquired, often made me shake my head in bewilderment. Life in our company was turning into a shit-show.

I wish I could say that after we all returned to the same workplace, we joined hands and sang a rousing chorus of Kumbaya. We didn’t. The damage had been done. Many of the disgruntled former virtual team members ended up moving on. The cultural core of the company remained with our original team members who had worked in the same office location for several years. I eventually completed my contract and went my own way.

I never fully determined what the culprit was. Was it our virtual team members? Or was it the fact that we embraced a virtual workplace without considering unintended consequences. I suspected it was a little of both.

Like I said, that was a decade ago. From a rational perspective, all the benefits of a virtual workplace seem even more enticing than they did then. But in the last 10 years, there has been research done on those irrational factors that can lead to the cracks in a corporate culture that we experienced.

Mahdi Roghanizad is an organizational behavior specialist from Ryerson University in Toronto. He has long looked at the limitations of computerized communication. And his research provides a little more clarity into our failed experiment with a virtual workplace.

Roghanizad has found that without real-life contact, the parts of our brain that provide us with the connections needed to build trust never turn on. In order to build a true relationship with another person, we need something called the Theory of Mind. According to Wikipedia, “Theory of mind is necessary to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.”

But unless we’re physically face-to-face with another person, our brain doesn’t engage in this critical activity. “Eye contact is required to activate that theory of mind and when the eye contact is not there, the whole other signal information is not processed by our brain,” said Roghanizad. Even wearing a pair of sunglasses is enough to short circuit the process. Relegating contact to a periodic Zoom call guarantees that this empathetic part of our brains will never kick in.

But it’s not just being eye-ball to eye-ball. There are other non-verbal cues we rely on to connect with other people and create a Theory of Mind. Other research has shown the importance of pheromones and physical gestures like crossing your arms and leaning forward or back. This is why we subconsciously start to physically imitate people we’re talking to. The stronger the connection with someone, the more we imitate them.

This all comes back to the importance of bandwidth in the real world. A digital connection cannot possibly incorporate all the nuance of a face-to-face connection. And whether we realize it or not, we rely on that bandwidth to understand other people. From that understanding comes the foundations of trusted relationships. And trusted relationships are the difference between a high-functioning work team and a dysfunctional one.

I wish I knew that ten years ago.

A World Flattened by Social Media

“Life is What Happens to You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans”

John Lennon

The magic of our lives is in the nuance, the unexpected and – sometimes – the mundane. It depends on bandwidth – a full spectrum of experience and stimuli that extends beyond the best attempts of our imagination to put boundaries around it. As Mr. Lennon knew, life is lived in a continual parade of moments that keeps marching past us, whether we’ve planned them or not.

Of course, our current ability to make life plans is not what it once was. In fact, most aspects of our former lives have gone into a forced hibernation. Suddenly, our calendars are completely clear and we have a lot of unexpected time on our hands. So many of us have been spending more of that time on social media. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding that a poor substitute for the real world.

I’ve noticed a few of my friends have recently posted that they’re taking a break from Facebook. That’s not unprecedented. But I think this time might be different. Speaking for myself, I have recently been experiencing a strange combination of anxiety and ennui when I spend any time on Facebook.

First, there are the various posts of political and moral outrage. I agree with almost all of them, in direction if not necessarily in degree.

And then there are the various posts of inspirational quotes and assorted pictures of loaves of bread, pets, gardens, favorite albums, our latest hobby, walks in the woods and kids doing adorable things. It is the assorted bric-a-brac of our new normal under COVID.

I like and/or agree with almost all these things. Facebook’s targeting algorithm has me pretty much pegged. But if the sum total of my Facebook feed defined the actual world I had to live in, I would get pretty bored with it in the first 15 minutes.

It would be like seeing the world only in blue and orange. I like blue. I’m okay with orange. But I don’t want to see the world in only those two colours. And that’s what Facebook does.

This is not a slight against Facebook. None of us (with the possible exception of Mark Zuckerberg) should expect it to be a substitute for the real world. But now that a lot of us have been restricted from experiencing big chunks of the real world and have substituted time with social media for it, we should realize the limitations of what it can provide.

Facebook and other social media platforms give us a world without nuance, without bandwidth, without serendipity and without context. Further, it is a world that has been algorithmically altered and filtered specifically for a data defined avatar of who we really are. We’re not even getting the full bandwidth of what is on the platform. We’re getting what happens to squeeze past the content filters that act as our own personalized gatekeepers.

What the past 3 months has taught me is that when we rely on social media for experience, information or perspective, we have to take it for what it is. As a source of information, it is at best highly restricted and biased. As a source of social connection and experience, it is mercilessly flattened and stripped of all nuance. As a substitute for the real world, it comes up woefully short.

Perhaps the biggest restriction with social media is that everything we see is planned and premeditated, either by humans or an algorithm. The content that is posted is done so with clear intent. And the content we actually see has been targeted to fit within some data driven pigeonhole that an algorithm has decided represents us. What we’re missing is exactly what John Lennon was referring to when he talked about what life is: the unplanned, the unexpected, the unintended.

We’re missing an entire spectrum of color beyond blue and orange.

How Social Media is Rewiring our Morality

Just a few short months ago, I never dreamed that one of the many fault lines in our society would be who wore a face mask and who didn’t. But on one day last week, most of the stories on CNN.com were about just that topic.

For reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post, the debate has some interesting moral and sociological implications. But before we get to that, let’s address this question: What is morality anyway?

Who’s On First?

In the simplest form possible, there is one foundational evolutionary spectrum to what we consider our own morality, which is: Are we more inclined to worry about ourselves or worry about others? Each of us plots our own morals somewhere on this spectrum.

At one end we have the individualist, the one who continually puts “me first.” Typically, the morals of those focused only on themselves concern individual rights, freedoms and beliefs specific to them. This concern for these rights does not extend to anyone considered outside their own “in” group.

As we move across the spectrum, we next find the familial moralist: Those who worry first about their own kin. Morality is always based on “family first.”

Next comes those who are more altruistic, as long as that altruism is directed at those who share common ground with themselves.  You could call this the “we first” group.

Finally, we have the true altruist, who believes in a type of universal altruism and that a rising tide truly lifts all boats.  

This concept of altruism has always been a bit of a puzzle for early evolutionists. In sociological parlance, it’s called proactive prosociality — doing something nice for someone who is not closely related to you without being asked. It seems at odds with the concept of the Selfish Gene, first introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book of the same name in 1976.

But as Dawkins has clarified over and over again since the publication of the book, selfish genes and prosociality are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, symbiotic.

Moral Collaboration

We have spent about 95% or our entire time as a species as hunter-gatherers. If we have evolved a mechanism of morality,  it would make sense to be most functional in that type of environment.

Hunter-gatherer societies need to collaborate. This is where the seeds of reciprocal altruism can be found. A group of people who work together to ensure continued food supplies will outlive and out-reproduce a group of people who don’t.  From a selfish gene perspective, collaboration will beat stubborn individualism.

But this type of collaboration comes with an important caveat: It only applies to individuals that live together in the same communal group.

Social conformity acts as a manual override on our own moral beliefs. Even in situations where we may initially have a belief of what is right and wrong, most of us will end up going with what the crowd is doing.

It’s an evolutionary version of the wisdom of crowds. But our evolved social conformity safety net comes with an important caveat: it assumes that everyone in the group is  in the same physical location and dealing with the same challenge.  

There is also a threshold effect there that determines how likely we are to conform. How we will act in any given situation will depend on a number of factors: how strong our existing beliefs are, the situation we’re in, and how the crowd is acting. This makes sense. Our conformity is inversely related to our level of perceived knowledge. The more we think we know, the less likely it is that we’ll conform to what the crowd is doing.

We should expect that a reasonably “rugged” evolutionary environment where survival is a continual struggle would tend to produce an optimal moral framework somewhere in the middle of familial and community altruism, where the group benefits from collaboration but does not let its guard down against outside threats.

But something interesting happens when the element of chronic struggle is removed, as it is in our culture. It appears that our morality tends to polarize to opposite ends of the spectrum.

Morality Rewired

What happens when our morality becomes our personal brand, part of who we believe we are? When that happens, our sense of morality migrates from the evolutionary core of our limbic brain to our cortex, the home of our personal brand. And our morals morph into a sort of tribal identity badge.

In this case, social media can short-circuit the evolutionary mechanisms of morality.

For example, there has been a proven correlation  between prosociality and the concept of “watching eye.” We are more likely to be good people when we have an audience.

But social media twists the concept of audience and can nudge our behavior from the prosocial to the more insular and individualistic end of the spectrum.

The successfulness of social conformity and the wisdom of crowds depends on a certain heterogeneity in the ideological makeup of the crowd. The filter bubble of social media strips this from our perceived audience, as I have written. It reinforces our moral beliefs by surrounding us with an audience that also shares those beliefs. The confidence that comes from this tends to push us away from the middle ground of conformed morality toward outlier territory. Perhaps this is why we’re seeing the polarization of morality all too evident today.

As I mentioned at the beginning, there may never have been  a more observable indicator of our own brand of morality than the current face-mask debate.

In an article on Businessinsider.com, Daniel Ackerman compared it to the crusade against seat belts in the 1970’s. Certainly when it comes to our perceived individual rights and not wanting to be told what to do, there are similarities. But there is one crucial difference. You wear seat belts to save your own life. You wear a face mask to save other lives.

We’ve been told repeatedly that the main purpose of face masks is to stop you spreading the virus to others, not the other way around. That makes the decision of whether you wear a face mask or not the ultimate indicator of your openness to reciprocal altruism.

The cultural crucible in which our morality is formed has changed. Our own belief structure of right and wrong is becoming more inflexible. And I have to believe that social media may be the culprit.

Our Complicated Relationship with Heroes

It’s not really surprising that we think more about heroes in times of adversity. Many of our most famous superheroes were born in the crucible of crisis: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America were all created during the Great Depression or the early years of World War II.

Today, we are again craving heroes. They are fabricated out of less fantastic stuff: taxi drivers who give free rides to the airport for patients, nurses who staff the front lines of our hospitals, chefs who provide free food to essential workers and a centenarian (as of tomorrow) who is raising millions for his national health care system by walking around his garden every day.

These are ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. They are being raised to the rank of hero thanks to the surging tides of social media.

Again, this isn’t surprising. We are still in the early stages of what, for most of us, will likely be the defining crisis of our lifetimes. We desperately need some good news.

In fact, everybody’s favorite paper salesman/CIA operative/husband of Mary Poppins — John Krasinski — has curated a weekly webcast collection of feel-good salutes to local heroes called “Some Good News.” As of the writing of this post, it had collectively racked up close to 50 million views.

Krasinski has himself become a hero by doing things like throwing a surprise virtual prom for all the grads who were derived of theirs by the pandemic, or letting a group of ER nurses take the field at an eerily empty Fenway Park.

Having heroes should be a good thing. They should inspire us to be better people  — to become heroes ourselves. Right?

Well…

It’s complicated.

On the surface of it, hero worship is probably a good thing, especially if our heroes are doing things we all could do, if we were so inclined.  “If a 99.9-year-old man can raise millions for a national health service, there must be something I can do.”

On that very theme, the Heroic Imagination Project was formed to help us all be heroes. Headed up by famed psychologist Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, HIP came out of his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. “If,” reasoned Zimbardo, “we all have the capacity to be evil, given the right circumstances, we should also all have the capacity to be heroes, again under the right circumstances.”

But there are a few hurdles between us and heroism. One of them, ironically, comes part and parcel with the very idea of hero worship.

In an extensive analysis of how superheroes reflect the American mythology of their own times, Dublin writer Sally Rooney shows how a country uses its heroes to reassure itself of its own goodness: The superhero makes sense in times of crisis. Reducing the vast complex of nationhood into the body of an individual means periods of geopolitical turmoil can be repackaged as moments of psychological stress. In the mirror of the superhero, America is reassured of its good qualities. Physical strength is good, as is the ability to make wisecracks under pressure. Masculinity is good, and women are okay as long as they can do very high kicks while making wisecracks. Once America is on the scene, order can be restored.”

So, we use heroes as a moral baseline to make us feel better about collective selves. They can help us reaffirm our faith in our national ideologies. A picture of a nurse in scrubs silently staring down a protester demanding a haircut makes us feel that things are still OK  in the heartland of the nation. It’s a reverse adaptation of the Lake Wobegone effect: “If this person represents the best of what we (as Americans) are, then the average can’t be all that bad.”

Unfortunately, this leads right into the second hurdle, the Bystander Effect: “If something happens that demands heroic action and there are a lot of people around, surely there’s a hero in the crowd that will step forward before I have to.” Being a hero demands a certain amount of sacrifice. As long as someone else is willing to make that sacrifice, we don’t have to — but we can still feel good about ourselves by giving it a like,  or, if we’re truly motivated, sharing it on our feed.

As the greatest real-time sociological experiment in our lifetime continues to play out, we might have yet another example of an unintended consequence brought on by social media. Based on our Facebook feeds, it appears that we have more heroes than ever. That’s great, but will it encourage us or keep us from stepping up and becoming heroes ourselves?

A New Definition of Social

I am an introvert. My wife is an extrovert. Both of us have been self-isolating for about 5 weeks now.  I don’t know if our experiences are representative of introverts and extroverts as a group, but my sample size has – by necessity – been reduced to a “n” of 2. Our respective concepts of what it means to be social have been disruptively redefined, but in very different ways.

The Extro-Version

You’ve probably heard of Dunbar’s Number. It was proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. It’s the “suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” The number, according to Dunbar, is about 150. But that number is not an absolute. it’s a theoretical limit. Some of us can juggle way more social connections than others.

My wife’s EQ (emotional quotient) is off the charts. She has a need to stay emotionally connected to a staggering number of people. Even in normal times, she probably “checks in” with dozens of people every week. Before COVID-19, this was done face-to-face whenever possible.

Now, her empathetic heart feels an even greater need to make sure everyone is doing okay. But she has to do it through socially distanced channels. She uses text messaging a lot. But she also makes at least a few phone calls every day for those in her network who are not part of the SMS or social media universe.

She has begun using Zoom to coordinate virtual get-togethers of a number of her friends. Many in this circle are also extroverts. A fair number of them are – like my wife – Italian. You can hear them recharging their social batteries as the energy and volume escalates. It’s not cappuccino and biscotti but they are making do with what they’ve got.

Whatever the channel, it has been essential for my wife to maintain this continuum of connection.

The Intro-Version

There are memes circulating that paint the false picture that the time has finally come for us introverts. “I’ve been practicing for this my entire life,” says one. They consistently say that life in lockdown is much harder for extroverts than introverts. They even hint that we should be in introvert’s heaven. They are wrong. I am not having the time of my life.

I’m not alone. Other introverts are having trouble adjusting to a social agenda being forced upon them by their self-isolated extrovert friends and colleagues. We introverts seldom get to write the rules of social acceptability, even in a global pandemic.

If you type “Are introverts more likely” into Google, it will suggest the following ways to complete that sentence: “to be depressed”, “to be single”, “to have anxiety”, “to be alcoholic”, and “to be psychopaths”. The world is not built for introverts.

Understanding introversion vs extroversion is to understand social energy. Unlike my wife for whom social interactions act as a source of renewal, for me they are a depletion of energy. If I’m going to make the effort, it better be worth my while. A non-introvert can’t understand that. It’s often interpreted as aloofness, boredom or just being rude. It’s none of these. It’s just our batteries being run down.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think most introverts are antisocial. We’re just “differently” social. We need connections the same as extroverts. But those connections are of a certain kind. It’s true that introverts are not good at small talk. But under the right circumstances, we do love to talk. Those circumstances are just more challenging in the current situation.

Take Zoom for instance. My wife, the extrovert, and myself, the introvert, have done some Zoom meetings side by side. I have noticed a distinct difference in how we Zoom. But before I talk about that, let me set a comparative to a more typical example of an introvert’s version of hell: the dreaded neighborhood house party.

As an introvert in this scenario, I would be constantly reading body language and non-verbal cues to see if there was an opportunity to reluctantly crowbar my way into a conversation. I would only do so if the topic interested me. Even then, I would be subconsciously monitoring my audience to see if they looked bored. On the slightest sign of disinterest, I would awkwardly wind down the conversation and retreat to my corner.

It’s not that I don’t like to talk. But I much prefer sidebar one-on-one conversations. I don’t do well in environments where there is too much going on. In those scenarios, introverts tend to clam up and just listen.

Now, consider a Zoom “Happy Hour” with a number of other people. All of that non-verbal bandwidth we Introverts rely on to pick and choose where we expend our limited social energy is gone.   Although Zoom adds a video feed, it’s a very low fidelity substitute for an in-the-flesh interaction.

With all this mental picking and choosing happening in the background, you can understand why introverts are slow to jump into the conversational queue and, when we finally do, we find that someone else (probably an extrovert) has started talking first. I’m constantly being asked, “Did you say something Gord?”, at which point everyone stops talking and looks at my little Zoom cubicle, waiting for me to talk. That, my friends, is an introvert’s nightmare.

Finally, I Get the Last Word

Interestingly, neither my wife nor I are using Facebook much for connection. She has joined a few Facebook groups, one of which is a fan club for our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. Dr. Henry has become the most beloved person in B.C.

And I’m doing what I always tell everyone else not to do; follow my Facebook newsfeed and go into self-isolated paroxysms of rage about the Pan-dumb-ic and the battle between science and stupidity.

There is one social sacrifice that both my wife and I agree on. The thing we miss most is the ability to hug those we love.

Whipped Into a Frenzy

Once again, we’re in unprecedented territory. According to the CDC – COVID-19 is the first global pandemic since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. While Facebook was around in 2009, it certainly wasn’t as pervasive or impactful as it is today. Neither – for that matter – was H1N1 when compared to COVID-19. That would make COVID-19 the first true pandemic in the age of social media.

While we’re tallying the rapidly mounting human and economic costs of the pandemic on a day-by-day basis, there is a third type of damage to consider. There will be a cognitive cost to this as well.

So let’s begin by unpacking the psychology of a pandemic. Then we’ll add the social media lens to that.

Emotional Contagion aka “The Toilet Paper Syndrome”

Do you have toilet paper at your local store? Me neither. Why?

The short answer is that there is no rational answer. There is no disruption in the supply chain of toilet paper. If you were inclined to stock up on something to battle COVID-19, hand sanitizer would be a much better choice.  Search as you might, there is no logical reason why people should be pulling toilet paper by the pallet full out of their local Costco.

There is really only one explanation; panic is contagious. It’s called emotional contagion. And there is an evolutionary explanation for it. We evolved as herd animals and when our threats came from the environment around us, it made sense to panic when you saw your neighbor panicking. Those that were on the flanks of the herd acted as an early warning system for the rest. When you saw panic close to you, the odds were very good that you were about to be eaten, trampled or buried under a rockslide. We’re hardwired to live by the principle of “Monkey see, monkey do.”

Here’s the other thing about emotional contagion. It doesn’t work very well if you have to take time to think about it. Panicked responses to threats from your environment will only save your life if they happen instantly. Natural selection has ensured they bypass the slower and more rational processing loops of our brain.

But now let’s apply the social media lens to this. Before modern communication tools were invented, emotional contagion was limited by the constraints of physical proximity. It was the original application of social distancing. Emotions could spread to a social node linked by physical proximity, but it would seldom jump across ties to another node that was separated by distance.

Then came Facebook, a platform perfectly suited to emotional contagion. Through it, emotionally charged messages can spread like wildfire regardless of where the recipients might be – creating cascades of panic across all nodes in a social network.

Now we have cascades of panic causing – by definition – irrational responses. And that’s dangerous. As Wharton Management professor Sigal Barsade said in a recent podcast, “I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19”

Why We Need to Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On – the famous slogan from World War II Britain – is more than just a platitude that looks good on a t-shirt. It’s a sound psychological strategy for survival, especially when faced with threats in a complex environment. We need to think with our whole brain and we can only do that when we’re not panicking.

Again, Dr. Barsade cautions us “One of the things we also know from the research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision-making. We’re not creative. We’re not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions.”

Let’s again consider the Facebook Factor (in this case, Facebook being my proxy for all social media). Negative emotional messages driven by fear gets clicked and shared a lot on social media. Unfortunately, much of that messaging is – at best – factually incomplete or – at worst – a complete fabrication. A 2018 study from MIT showed that false news spreads six times faster on social media than factual information.

It gets worse. According to Pew Research, one in five Americans said that social media is their preferred source for news, surpassing newspapers. In those 18 -to 29, it was the number one source. When you consider the inherent flaws in the methodology of a voluntary questionnaire, you can bet the actual number is a lot higher.

Who Can You Trust?

Let’s assume we can stay calm. Let’s further assume we can remain rational. In order to make rational decisions, you need factual information.

Before 2016, you could generally rely on government sources to provide trustworthy information. But that was then. Now, we live in the reality distortion field that daily spews forth fabricated fiction from the Twitter account of Donald. J. Trump, aka the President of the United States.

The intentional manipulation of the truth by those we should trust has a crippling effect on our ability to respond as a cohesive and committed community. As recently as just a week and a half ago, a poll found that Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that COVID-19 posed an imminent threat to the U.S. By logical extension, that means that Republicans were half as likely to do something to stop the spread of the disease.

My Plan for the Pandemic

Obviously, we live in a world of social media. COVID-19 or not, there is no going back. And while I have no idea what will happen regarding the pandemic, I do have a pretty good guess how this will play out on social media. Our behaviours will be amplified through social media and there will be a bell curve of those behaviors stretching from assholes to angels. We will see the best of ourselves – and the worst – magnified through the social media lens.

Given that, here’s what I’m planning to do. One I already mentioned. I’m going to keep calm. I’m going to do my damnedest to make calm, rational decisions based on trusted information (i.e. not from social media or the President of the United States) to protect myself, my loved ones and anyone else I can.

The other plan? I’m going to reread everything from Nassam Nicholas Taleb. This is a good time for all of us to brush up on our understanding of robustness and antifragility.

The Saddest Part about Sadfishing

There’s a certain kind of post I’ve always felt uncomfortable with when I see it on Facebook. You know the ones I’m talking about — where someone volunteers excruciatingly personal information about their failing relationships, their job dissatisfaction, their struggles with personal demons. These posts make me squirm.

Part of that feeling is that, being of British descent, I deal with emotions the same way the main character’s parents are dealt with in the first 15 minutes of any Disney movie: Dispose of them quickly, so we can get on with the business at hand.

I also suspect this ultra-personal sharing  is happening in the wrong forum. So today, I’m trying to put an empirical finger on my gut feelings of unease about this particular topic.

After a little research, I found there’s a name for this kind of sharing: sadfishing. According to Wikipedia, “Sadfishing is the act of making exaggerated claims about one’s emotional problems to generate sympathy. The name is a variation on ‘catfishing.’ Sadfishing is a common reaction for someone going through a hard time, or pretending to be going through a hard time.”

My cynicism towards these posts probably sounds unnecessarily harsh. It goes against our empathetic grain. These are people who are just calling out for help. And one of the biggest issues with mental illness is the social stigma attached to it. Isn’t having the courage to reach out for help through any channel available — even social media — a good thing?

I do believe asking for help is undeniably a good thing. I wish I myself was better able to do that. It’s Facebook I have the problem with. Actually, I have a few problems with it.

It’s Complicated

Problem #1: Even if a post is a genuine request for help, the poster may not get the type of response he or she needs.

Mental Illness, personal grief and major bumps on our life’s journey are all complicated problems — and social media is a horrible place to deal with complicated problems. It’s far too shallow to contain the breadth and depth of personal adversity.

Many read a gut-wrenching, soul-scorching post (genuine or not), then leave a heart or a sad face, and move on. Within the paper-thin social protocols of Facebook, this is an acceptable response. And it’s acceptable because we have no skin in the game. That brings us to problem #2.

Empathy is Wired to Work Face-to-Face

Our humanness works best in proximity. It’s the way we’re wired.

Let’s assume someone truly needs help. If you’re physically with them and you care about them, things are going to get real very quickly. It will be a connection that happens at all possible levels and through all senses.

This will require, at a minimum, hand-holding and, more likely, hugs, tears and a staggering personal commitment  to help this person. It is not something taken or given lightly. It can be life-changing on both sides.

You can’t do it at arm’s length. And you sure as hell can’t do it through a Facebook reply.

The Post That Cried Wolf

But the biggest issue I have is that social media takes a truly genuine and admirable instinct, the simple act of helping someone, and turns it into just another example of fake news.

Not every plea for help on Facebook is exaggerated just for the sake of gaining attention, but some of them are.

Again, Facebook tends to take the less admirable parts of our character and amplify them throughout our network. So, if you tend to be narcissistic, you’re more apt to sadfish. If you have someone you know who continually reaches out through Facebook with uncomfortably personal posts of their struggles, it may be a sign of a deeper personality disorder, as noted in this post on The Conversation.

This phenomenon can create a kind of social numbness that could mask genuine requests for help. For the one sadfishing, It becomes another game that relies on generating the maximum number of social responses. Those of us on the other side quickly learn how to play the game. We minimize our personal commitment and shield ourselves against false drama.

The really sad thing about all of this is that social media has managed to turn legitimate cries for help into just more noise we have to filter through.

But What If It’s Real?

Sadfishing aside, for some people Facebook might be all they have in the way of a social lifeline. And in this case, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If someone you know and care about has posted what you suspect is a genuine plea for help, respond as humans should: Reach out in the most personal way possible. Elevate the conversation beyond the bounds of social media by picking up the phone or visiting them in person. Create a person-to-person connection and be there for them.

The Hidden Agenda Behind Zuckerberg’s “Meaningful Interactions”

It probably started with a good intention. Facebook – aka Mark Zuckerberg – wanted to encourage more “Meaningful Interactions”. And so, early last year, Facebook engineers started making some significant changes to the algorithm that determined what you saw in your News Feed. Here are some excerpts from Zuck’s post to that effect:

“The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.”

That makes sense, right? It sounds logical. Zuckerberg went on to say how they were changing Facebook’s algorithm to encourage more “Meaningful Interactions.”

“The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.

As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”


Let’s fast-forward almost two years and we now see the outcome of that good intention…an ideological landscape with a huge chasm where the middle ground used to be.

The problem is that Facebook’s algorithm naturally favors content from like-minded people. And surprisingly, it doesn’t take a very high degree of ideological homogeneity to create a highly polarized landscape. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. American Economist Thomas Schelling showed us how easy it was for segregation to happen almost 50 years ago.

The Schelling Model of Segregation was created to demonstrate why racial segregation was such a chronic problem in the U.S., even given repeated efforts to desegregate. The model showed that even when we’re pretty open minded about who our neighbors are, we will still tend to self-segregate over time.

The model works like this. A grid represents a population with two different types of agents: X and O. The square that the agent is in represents where they live. If the agent is satisfied, they will stay put. If they aren’t satisfied, they will move to a new location. The variable here is the level of satisfaction determined by what percentage of their immediate neighbours are the same type of agent as they are. For example, the level of satisfaction might be set at 50%; where the X agent needs at least 50% of its neighbours to also be of type X. (If you want to try the model firsthand, Frank McCown, a Computer Science professor at Harding University, created an online version.)

The most surprising thing that comes out of the model is that this threshold of satisfaction doesn’t have to be set very high at all for extensive segregation to happen over time. You start to see significant “clumping” of agent types at percentages as low as 25%. At 40% and higher, you see sharp divides between the X and O communities. Remember, even at 40%, that means that Agent X only wants 40% of their neighbours to also be of the X persuasion. They’re okay being surrounded by up to 60% Os. That is much more open-minded than most human agents I know.

Now, let’s move the Schelling Model to Facebook. We know from the model that even pretty open-minded people will physically segregate themselves over time. The difference is that on Facebook, they don’t move to a new part of the grid, they just hit the “unfollow” button. And the segregation isn’t physical – it’s ideological.

This natural behavior is then accelerated by the Facebook “Meaningful Encounter” Algorithm which filters on the basis of people you have connected with, setting in motion an ever-tightening spiral that eventually restricts your feed to a very narrow ideological horizon. The resulting cluster then becomes a segment used for ad targeting. We can quickly see how Facebook both intentionally built these very homogenous clusters by changing their algorithm and then profits from them by providing advertisers the tools to micro target them.

Finally, after doing all this, Facebook absolves themselves of any responsibility to ensure subversive and blatantly false messaging isn’t delivered to these ideologically vulnerable clusters. It’s no wonder comedian Sascha Baron Cohen just took Zuck to task, saying “if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’”. 

In rereading Mark Zuckerberg’s post from two years ago, you can’t help but start reading between the lines. First of all, there is mounting evidence that disproves his contention that meaningful social media encounters help your well-being. It appears that quitting Facebook entirely is much better for you.

And secondly, I suspect that – just like his defence of running false and malicious advertising by citing free speech – Zuck has an not-so-hidden agenda here. I’m sure Zuckerberg and his Facebook engineers weren’t oblivious to the fact that their changes to the algorithm would result in nicely segmented psychographic clusters that would be like catnip to advertisers – especially political advertisers. They were consolidating exactly the same vulnerabilities that were exploited by Cambridge Analytica.

They were building a platform that was perfectly suited to subvert democracy.

The Tourification of Our World

Who wouldn’t want to be in Venice? Gondolas drift by with Italian gondoliers singing “O Sole Mio.” You sit at a café savoring your espresso as you watch Latin lovers stroll by hand in hand on their way to the Bridge of Sighs. The Piazza San Marco is bathed in a golden glow as the sun sets behind the Basilica di San Marco. The picture? Perfect.  

Again, who wouldn’t want to live in Venice?

The answer, according to the latest population stats, is almost everyone. The population of Venice is one third what it was in 1970.

The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that I changed the sentence slightly in the second version. I replaced “be” with “live.”  And that’s the difference. Venice is literally the “nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  

A lot of people do visit, well over 5 million a year. But almost nobody lives there. The permanent population of Venice has shrunk to below 60,000.

Venice has become tourified. It’s a false front of a city, one built for those who are going to be there for 48 to 72 hours. In the process, everything needed to make it sustainable for those who want to call it home has been stripped out. It has become addicted to tourist dollars — and that addiction is killing it.

We should learn from Venice’s example. Sometimes, in trying to make a fantasy real, you take away the very things needed to let it survive.

Perfection doesn’t exist in nature. Imperfections are required for robustness. Yet, we are increasingly looking for a picture of perfection we can escape to.

The unintended consequences of this are troubling to think about.

We spent a good part of the last century devising new ways to escape. What was once an activity that lived well apart from our real lives has become increasingly more entwined with those lives.

As our collective affluence has grown, we spend more and more time chasing the fantastical. Social media has accelerated this chase. Our feeds are full of posts from those in pursuit of a fantasy.

We have shifted our focus from the place we live to the “nice place to visit.” This distorts our expectations of what reality should be. We expect the tourist-brochure version of Venice without realizing that in constructing exactly that, we set in motion a chain of events resulting in a city that’s unlivable.

The rise of populist politics is the broken-mirror image of this. Many of us have mythologized the America we want — or Britain, or any of the other countries that have gone down the populist path.. And myths are, by definition, unsustainable in the real world. They are vastly oversimplified pictures that allow us to create a story that we long for. It’s  the same as the picture I painted of Venice in the first paragraph: a fantasy that can’t survive reality.

In our tendency to “tourify” everything, there are at least two unintended consequences: one for ourselves and one for our world.

For us, the need to escape continually draws our energies and attentions from what we need to do to save the world we actually live in, toward the mythologization of the world we think we want to live in. We ignore the inconvenient truths of reality as we pursue our imagined perfection.

But it’s the second outcome that’s probably more troubling. Even if we were successful in building the world we think we want, we could well find that built a bigger version of Venice, a place sinking under the weight of its own fantasy.

Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for.