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The New Shared Smell and The Halved Muffin

A surprise phone call from a client inspired this write up today. This three-part series will bring in the realms of sociology, psychology, and anthrophony – concepts that will help redesign the new virtual world that will form a large part of our realities going forward.

As a consultant, I am accustomed to spending 80% of my work-day meeting people. I am virtually meeting people now and it is a good medium but the experience is missing. 

Why do I feel something is missing?

A little investigation led me to this – 

Just like the experience of drinking coffee has elements of the aroma, the deep brown colour that pleases the eye, the size and feel of the cup – including its temperature and ambiance; The experience of a meeting has several elements -  the setting of the meeting, the smell associated with it, the mirroring of emotions and conversation, the shared common space and the sounds in the background

The mere smell of coffee can create an expectation of a meeting for me – the two are so deeply associated in my world.  

What makes social events “experiences” is the activation of all 5 senses. Senses are the very basis of human experience and interaction (Dewey 1934; Merleau-Ponty 1968; Serres 2008). They are the “most fundamental domain of cultural expression, the medium through which all of the values and practices are enacted” (Howes 2003: XI).

In virtual mediums, our 5 senses do not get activated and we have no shared smell and setting. The lack of sensory stimulation gives us a feeling of “missing” something. The understanding of how our senses work is key to making the virtual world truly “social”.

We make sense out of sensory experiences by creating distinct mental clusters through processes that Zerubavel (1996) called “LUMPING” and “SPLITTING”.

  • Lumping “entails grouping ‘similar’ things together in a single mental cluster”

  • Splitting “involves perceiving ‘different’ clusters as separate from one another” 

We are usually accustomed to “LUMP” and “SPLIT”  things and over a period of time when we see the association with and across natural occurrences.

Example- We perceive grape juice as similar to orange juice, but different from wine. This distinction has little to do with the taste of either wine or grape juice but, instead, has everything to do with a cultural process of lumping that is made possible by splitting the construct of “alcohol.” The concept of alcohol, not the sensory experience of the drink, leads us to perceive wine as more similar to whiskey than to grape juice. 

Yet, without the ability to lump and split, it is impossible to envision any mental cluster at all. While the mind organizes reality into separate chunks, we do not do it as individuals, but as members of social and cultural “thought communities” (Fleck 1979[1935]; Zerubavel 1996), and as members of social and cultural sensory communities: groups of people who share common ways of using their senses and making sense of sensations.

The fact that meetings mean coffee, is, therefore, a social construct in my world. 

To enjoy the virtual meetings, my senses will have to learn to dissociate the two and create a new lump.

How will this happen? If evolution is to be believed, our senses will regroup and re-lump in a few months – For Example - we may end up linking “zoom” with “work meetings” - making it psychologically hard for us to use zoom for a meet up with family and friends. The new lumps will form as an outcome of social engagements but I believe we can impact the creation of these new lumps through the use of behavioural conditioning. 

Now let us think about the LUMPS and SPLITS that are cornerstones of performance review through dialogues between managers and their team members. Can you list some for me? Together we can reconstruct them and begin a dialogue around re-lumping.


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