The Face-to-Face Situation and the Thou-Orientation

Schutz, Alfred. (1967). The Phenomenology of the Social World. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

The Face-to-Face Situation and the Thou-Orientation

In this section, Schutz breaks down what really defines and constitutes the Face-to-Face (FtF) interaction as well as the thou-orientation and the we-relationship. This 1967 text could not have considered online video communication; however, it seems a communication method that is really outside the definitions that Schutz details.

Schutz suggests that when another person shares a community of space (when the individual is present in person and I am aware of him) and time (when the person’s experience is occurring simultaneous and side-by-side to mine), that individual can be considered within direct reach of my experience. “This spatial and temporal immediacy is essential to the face-to-face situation” (163).

This seems clear and obvious enough; the direct and FtF experience can only occur when the other person is directly present in front of me for a given period of time. There is an element of immediacy here, which can only occur in such a setting. However, as Schutz breaks down the elements that comprise this situation, they are closer to those of the distant, asynchronous online video conversation (OVC) than one might imagine.

“In order to become aware of [a face-to-face] situation, the participant must become intentionally conscious of the person confronting him. … The Thou-orientation can thus be defined as the intentionality of those Acts whereby the Ego grasps the existence of the other person in the mode of the original self” (163-4).

Here, Schutz establishes that a participant must be aware of the other participant in the interaction. Yet, it may still be unclear whether the other individual needs to actually be there and immediately present. This is to say, on some level, I grasp the existence of the other individual when I am on the phone with him regardless of whether he is 100 or 10,000 miles away and also when watching a video, but this awareness is admittedly different. We must then ask what it is that constitutes this difference. By Schutz’s explanation, “it is precisely the being there (Dasein) of the Other toward which the Thou-orientation is directed, not necessarily the Other’s specific characteristics” (164). Therefore, one need not be completely aware of the Other’s thoughts and intentions; one need only be intentionally directed to and aware of another living human being.

Now the fact that I look upon you as a fellow man does not mean that I am also a fellow man for you, unless you are aware of me. And, of course, it is quite possible that you might not be paying attention to me at all. The Thou-orientation can, therefore, be either one-sided or reciprocal. It is one-sided if only one of us notices the presence of the other. It is reciprocal if we are mutually aware of each other, that is, if each of us is Thou-oriented toward the other” (164).

This point is extremely important in consideration of the OVC, since one viewing a video has a certain level of awareness of the Other individual on-screen. This is to say, the viewer experiences all of the vocal intonation and volume changes, he sees all of the gestures, facial expressions, eyebrow raises, etc. The viewer cannot know the thoughts and intentions of the on-screen being, but, as established above, this is no different from the FtF setting. Similarly, that the on-screen individual has no awareness of the viewer is a common characteristic in many live settings.

In a synchronous online video conversation, one could draw many parallels to the FtF setting, since there is the temporal element and the participants experience each other simultaneously; it is thus a reciprocal Thou-orientation. In the asynchronous OVC, however, one can still sense the other individual but it is a one-sided Thou-orientation. That is can be a conversation with multiple exchanges from each side does not make it reciprocal, since the participants are not experiencing each other simultaneously. Rather, it mutually one-sided with the participants directed at each other and thus forming (or maintaining) a directly experienced social relationship.

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