The Virtual Veil

Hiding behind our devices makes us ornery, while rejoining humanity makes us happy and kind

The Virtual Veil

I had an experience this past weekend during a show my band played at a great outdoor farm and brewery in the Massachusetts hills. After the end of the show, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome approached the stage with a parent, asking if she could sing her favorite song to the crowd. I was packing up equipment, so didn’t catch the entire exchange, but she ended up singing her favorite song, Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody.”

Objectively, she was not a good singer. She couldn’t carry a tune, and was more shrieking than singing. But I was pleased to see the entire crowd sit tight, begin to sing along to cover up for her, and give her a rousing ovation at the end. On stage, she was beaming, and the audience had a good time singing along to a catchy and familiar song. It was a lovely and unexpected end to a great show.

I’ve seen similar things like this occur, most recently at a talent show where a performer tried out John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” but couldn’t sustain the high register with his voice, so the audience jumped in and sang along, making it a great experience for him and us.

I mention this because again and again, when people are together and sharing the same time and space, their innate goodness is almost always on display. Not always, and not everyone, but most people nearly all the time. Just as I’m sure you’ve run into people who have dunked on you in email or online, only to find that they are much less willing to engage is such behavior in-person, you see community emerging naturally when people are put together in settings where they can see each other, interact, and form a positive gestalt.

Which all made me think of what I’ve come to call “The Virtual Veil” — the perceived barrier separating us online that we sometimes fill with vitriol, snarkiness, or meanness we’d never consider bringing to real-world interactions with someone within arm’s length.

The Virtual Veil first emerged when email became commonplace in the 1990s. Soon enough, corporate HR had to interpose numerous times as people indulged in screeds and angry responses that never would have emerged or been tolerated over the phone, across a desk, in a hallway, or in a conference room. Suddenly, people had the ability to privately and impulsively pour forth reams of angry, hurt, or indignant thoughts, ratcheting up their adrenaline rather than simmering down, letting the adrenaline dissipate, and having minor slights or frustrations blow over.

Fast-forward, and throwing bombs from behind the Virtual Veil has become so commonplace that many people hide behind it all the time. Social norms have shifted in the meantime, so that now many couples sit at dinner, immersed in their phones, barely talking. Groups of young adults gather to share space but barely speak, each perusing their phones and perhaps sharing information virtually while ignoring the living beings around them. Dating has moved from chance encounters in public areas to private shopping via apps, removing the opportunity for human-based attractions — smell, voice, vibe, posture, movement — to become part of the initial spark, and substituting the elements of an audition (headshot, résumé).

The pandemic has exacerbated these behaviors and others, as we retreat behind the Virtual Veil.

But when that veil is removed — when people are together, sharing a moment, their phones put away — the best can come out.

We’re now headed into what may be the first year of in-person events and conferences in a while. Do yourself a favor — don’t open your laptop at the session, don’t bring out your phone to sneak-check email, don’t live-Tweet things to entertain your followers, and don’t text your buddies in the room.

Try a new way — no screens, nothing in your hands, full attention on the experience that involves your actual physical presence, that only happens once, and that benefits from your full attention. It will drive you itchy mad to do it at first, but soon enough, you’ll adapt. And you might find some unexpected delights with a new method of meeting and interacting.

In short, you may end up making yourself and others feel more alive and accepted, and gain a lot of information others miss because they’re distractedly playing games of one kind or another behind the Virtual Veil.