About two years ago, one of my psychiatric patients was giving me a lot of trouble. He was depressed, and even though he talked all the time, I couldn’t find a way to get through to him on our Zoom calls. He seemed to avoid looking at me and remained silent, briefly answering my questions. I was worried that he would stop treatment, so I told him that we should do something I don’t like to do with patients: go for a walk.
We met in the park on a very hot day and sat on a bench when we finished. Among the few people nearby was a group of workers, who were cleaning the grounds, chatting loudly, and obviously enjoying themselves. When I tried to ask my patient about his education, he just looked at the staff. As soon as we finished, he burst into tears and said that he was very lonely. It was the most they’d opened for me in months, and it was spot on. Perhaps the sight of these healed young men was a reminder of his painful isolation that he could not ignore. Or maybe traveling together made him feel comfortable enough to open up. Either way, it wouldn’t have happened on Zoom or in my office.
My experience with my patient contradicts America’s fixation on attention. At work, we are praised for focusing on the task at hand, while some companies punish employees for sitting too long on their computer. With friends, we are expected to be active and friendly listeners, which requires constant attention. Being more focused on what people are saying and trying not to distract you can be seen as a way to improve friendships and create better relationships. But in reality, this high level of energy can make you feel disconnected from other people. If you really want to grow a relationship, shared distractions can be very powerful.
If you’ve ever solved a social problem with unrelated small talk or icebreaker games, you already know the benefits of distracting people. Indeed, a few studies, although not investigating distractions of any kind, have shown that engaging in distracting activities, such as. exercise, it can enhance feelings of social connection and pleasure. This is in stark contrast to isolated, self-contained social interactions in which everyone engages in distracting activities, such as looking at a smartphone.
Although the mechanism by which interference may increase feelings of attachment is unknown, there are plausible explanations. Exercise, even as gentle as walking, has been compatible and a great increase in imagination, diversity, and interaction—perhaps because moving takes our attention away from ourselves. Natural thinking, in turn, can move the conversation in unexpected directions, possibly activating the neural reward pathways themselves. enjoy the novelty and thereby make us rejoice in one another’s presence. And mobility isn’t really necessary for disruptive benefits to happen: A 2022 learning published in Nature found that simply looking at one’s surroundings can improve one’s thinking.
The study also found that two people who work together often do not recognize their place; instead, they spent a lot of time looking directly at each other’s pictures. This is not up for discussion. Looking at your partner’s face is both cognitive and emotional boringand can be a sign of a controlling the environment. As you may have experienced the benefits of the nature of paradoxes, you may also have realized the nature of the difficulties of the most strongly. Years ago, hundreds of thousands people, including myself, went to the Museum of Modern Art to see a portrait of the Serbian actress Marina Abramović, in which she sat at a small wooden table, looking silently and indifferently for a few minutes before every guest who sat. away from him. The experience was very unpleasant, and very difficult. By removing almost all surrounding stimuli, Abramović emphasized their importance.
The unpleasantness of long-distance contact helps explain why having natural, relationship-enhancing experiences on platforms like Zoom and FaceTime can be difficult: They largely remove the rich world of distractions and force us to look at the faces of our interlocutors. But for most of us, some connection is inevitable. For example, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center comparison that more than 30 percent of American working adults continue to work with Zoom, and even more on hybrid systems. But we can still use good things to distract us even if we can’t be with our friends and loved ones.
One idea is to simply freeze your camera, eliminating the possibility of pixelated eyes. After the outbreak, I trained the residents on Zoom and was devastated when they turned off their video. I thought they were different, but maybe they were stretching or walking around their house, getting a few distractions and making their Zoom skills richer. The reason I was angry was that it was one-sided; maybe we would have had better, more productive conversations if we’d all gone off camera together. On the other hand, try to leave your video and choose conversation starters, or take your partner on a sightseeing tour, or play a game together. When your friend talks, don’t get upset like I did. Ask them what they just saw or think and let the conversation flow.
When you have the chance to meet face-to-face, skip the staring contest and go out into the world together. You’ll be surprised at the places that can encourage conversation: the gym, a tough group, the sidelines of violent protests. Screaming because of noise can be a social event. But make sure you don’t choose something that is too distractions—otherwise you’ll all be in your own experience. This happened to me a few years ago, joining my husband in the Catskill Mountains. It was fun, but in the end it was an exercise to be alone together. We talked later.
There is a time and place for direct communication, if not, eye contact. If your friend is coming to you in trouble, or your friend is in the middle of confessing their love, they may not appreciate you pointing out a person with a pet scarlet macaw passing by (yes, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this a few times in New York City). But mostly, we benefit when we let a little of the world intrude.