In this guest post, Tribal Worldwide national head of strategy Caitlin Lloyd (pictured) offers her thoughts on social isolation and the impact it has had on wider social and cultural themes of belonging and herd mentality…
My childhood was spent sitting in the airing cupboard reading books. This was my favourite thing to do for two reasons. Firstly, the hot water tank was warm which was important growing up in England. Secondly, reading helped me practice my detective skills. I would search for clues to work out how the characters felt. There were the obvious signs in what they said and on top of the dialogue there were adverbs, so you knew how they said it. Sometimes you even got a direct line to characters’ thoughts via an inner monologue.
It’s not as easy to understand people in real life. As a strategist, I spend my days observing how people think and feel in an attempt to understand what they might do. Notoriously, this is bloody difficult, and some planners believe it’s a waste of time. Adam Ferrier argues in ‘Stop Listening to the Consumer’ that people don’t think about how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.
This is fascinating when you consider our new normal. Lockdown means many of us are confined to our homes, reliant on phone calls to communicate with colleagues and video technology to gauge reactions from clients. Not unexpectedly, this is causing some issues. Professor Mehrabian was the first to identify that communication is 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal. When body language and tone of voice are hidden, meaning can quickly get lost.
Undeniably, this makes for some awkward interactions, but my interest goes beyond office politics and into the real world. Some of us, particularly those who live alone, are finding it increasingly difficult to read one another. You may have noticed a lack of eye contact on your morning walk or in the supermarket recently. This phenomenon was kicked off by our obsession with smartphones but has accelerated with social distancing.
As pack animals, we’re desperate to know we’re part of the herd. Emotional contagion, a fancy term for mind-reading, happens at a subconscious level. Mirror neurons fire and we naturally adopt the facial and vocal expressions of those around us. Our heart rate, skin temperature and brainwaves get in on the action too. This isn’t always a desirable effect because negative emotions are more infectious than positive ones, which is why a bad mood can sometimes spread quicker than the flu.
But avoiding people entirely isn’t realistic. As much as we try to keep to ourselves, many of us still live on top of our partners and children. And even when we escape from our prisons, I mean homes, we can’t avoid acknowledging our neighbours. So, at a time when the majority of us are feeling scared, tired and anxious, seeing other people displaying those same emotions reinforces the knowledge that there’s something to fear. Sadly, second-hand emotions are like second-hand smoke; they can be almost as dangerous as the real thing.
So far, so depressing, but there is a silver lining. Human beings are remarkably consistent. Attempts to predict future behaviour often fail because our needs haven’t changed much over time. Maslow’s hierarchy is as sturdy as ever. We will continue to seek food, shelter, love, freedom and belonging until the day we die. So, as marketers, we need to remember, lockdown will lift. We don’t know when, but we know that it must. And when that day comes, I predict we will seek one another out again, because that is how we like to live, among others.
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