Our ‘sensing’ of the other

In her work on witnessed presence, Nevejan (2009) argues that that our awareness and connectivity are highly affected by whether we are physically sharing the same space or are distributed and communicating via mediating technologies such as letters, emails, and now skype (see also Nevejan in this Volume). How we move in time together shapes social presence and witnessing.

The qualities of human rhythmic synchrony bear on understanding the relation between being mutually aware (witnessing) and being present in everyday life through the synchrony of self with other. Witnessing is taken to mean the sense of having knowledge and understanding within the communicative situation, and this embodies social responsibility for the interaction. Different levels of synchrony and rhythm in interaction connect us, ranging from the moment-by-moment continuity of mutual synchrony to emergent rhythms of pragmatic sense-making. Bavelas wrote of the immediacy of face-to-face communication, describing how at the micro-analysis level, addressees can be seen provide simultaneous feedback to the speaker. Almost forty years before this, Condon described in detail how at the micro-level, the listener’s facial movements occur simultaneously with the speakers, in differing facial parts. And it is this immediacy which makes for what Goffman (1963) terms our ‘sensing’ of the other. As this immediacy becomes altered by a piece of glass placed in between us right through to looking at each other via mediating screens, it affects how we synchronize in time. In this space between self and other marked by the glass and screen, witnessing becomes mediated and mutual awareness now entails a combination of interpretation and sensing. The greater the disturbance to intra- and interpersonal synchrony, the less able we are to sustain mutual awareness that implicitly embodies the social responsibility towards another. Goffman envisioned that the problems of sensing in distributed communication would disappear once we could communicate via ‘TV screens’ but the complexity of intra- and interpersonal synchrony has not made it a simple matter, and it is necessary to understand this complexity of human synchrony and entrainment to analyse how we manage our mediated interaction and the implications for witnessing in social presence.