The power of presence

Author: Monica Caro

Students return to campus to start the spring 2021 semester

In the cascade of canceled flights, rescheduled events, and transitions from physical to virtual interactions over the past year, one polite demurral caught my attention: it came with a citation. The potential visitor preferred not to Zoom, linking to a letter from the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education that encouraged “lectures [to be] held in the presence of students and teachers, in accordance with the Norms of the Apostolic Constitution Veritatis Gaudium. . . . [T]eaching and research must develop in an environment where students and teachers carry out their activities in contact with others, in communion and sharing.”

While many meetings can transition to an online format, there is a distinctive quality of physical presence. The University of Notre Dame seems to have recognized this qualitative difference, as demonstrated by its engaging in extraordinary efforts to provide in-person experiences of education and community, particularly for undergraduate students, during this unusual academic year.

Integral human development, within the Keough School, is defined as “the development of each person and the whole person.” The idea of “the whole person” acknowledges the different dimensions of a person. There are different ways to describe this complexity; Western philosophy has debated for centuries the “mind-body problem,” referring to two dimensions of the person, namely the intellectual and the corporeal presence.

Presence and diplomacy

The Keough School of Global Affairs is preparing students for relationship-intense professions in fields such as peacebuilding, humanitarian aid, international cooperation, and various forms of diplomacy. In-person classes prepare students for global affairs careers understood ideally as physically present, interactive professions.

Let us take diplomacy as an example of the power—the necessity—of in-person presence. As with education, diplomacy remains a field where physical presence is vital. Hosting luncheons and dinners, welcoming delegations, and speaking informally with colleagues in the hallways and during breaks, are part of the daily life of diplomats. In fact, “face-to-face” meetings have been recognized as part of “the essence of diplomacy.”

Summitry—international meetings at the highest levels of government involving direct communication between political leaders—became an established component of interstate relations after the Second World War. Yet this is not a recent development triggered by modern travel: physical presence had been the hallmark of diplomacy well before the Congress of Vienna in 1815 codified and regularized the exchange and presence of ambassadors. Before telephones and emails, such physical presence enabled communication and relationship building. Today, physical presence remains essential. Countries continue to find value in maintaining a diplomatic corps, even when cable news and emails abound.

Recent reflections demonstrate that while having some meetings and conversations online can help ambassadors and diplomats manage their time more efficiently, it cannot replace physical encounters. For example, Jorge Descallar, who previously served as Spain’s Ambassador to Morocco, the Vatican, and the United States of America, explained that “digital online platforms are not well suited to conduct multilateral diplomacy, where face-to-face interaction between and among interlocutors, side conversations and discussion over a cup of coffee provide room for maneuver and an eventual compromise. It is not easy to develop a friendly bond with another diplomat who is thousands of kilometres” away.

Last September another expert observed that “[s]ince the pandemic broke out, not a single major diplomatic breakthrough has been observed . . .  [i]n fact, diplomacy has been largely sidelined as it’s squeezed between bad politics on one side and poor working methods on the other.” Further, the “lack of personal contact with colleagues and counterparts left diplomats with a general loss of information and a sense of deep discomfort.”

The convenience of virtual encounters can nonetheless lead to an unsatisfying diplomatic experience.

Digital diplomacy

Of course “digital diplomacy” has its advantages. It is an emerging field in diplomatic studies. If we define diplomacy as “the art of the continuous and peaceful management of international relations,” we can see how digital possibilities can overcome distance and offer tremendous speed. As Nicholas Westcott, former chief information officer of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, wrote: “The Internet allows regular and close, even intimate and trusted, relationships between people who may never have met face-to-face. Those relations may be closer than with many people living more physically close. It enables communities to build or maintain themselves without physical proximity.”

“How, then, to balance the physical and the virtual?”

In addition, digital diplomacy brings logistical advantages such as cost-savings on travel, increased efficiency of information flow, and the elimination of agonizing over drafts of seating charts and table arrangements.

There are, however, serious limits to virtual diplomacy and digital relationship building. Physical proximity matters. “Face-to-face” is not only about eye contact, but also about the encounter of “the whole person.” The credibility of a person and her trustworthiness is built and extended by physical presence.

How, then, to balance the physical and the virtual?

One suggestion in the context of diplomacy is to “make a clearer distinction between the successive stages of diplomatic practice,” eliminating travel for some preliminary stages but ensuring that negotiations can occur physically, particularly at critical stages. While informative briefings can occur virtually, more sophisticated interactions seem to require finesse that private chats in a webinar are insufficient to handle. Physical presence is necessary in order for the diplomat fully to interpret situations, have discreet sidebar conversations, and read the full range of verbal tones and physical cues.

In the academy

Likewise, in the academic environment, certain meetings and conferences can effectively convert to an online format. Often, this is most effective when relationships have been previously established in person over time. The Nanovic Institute for European Studies, acknowledging that the virtual meetings are now de rigueur, has enhanced connections with our Catholic Universities Partnership during the pandemic. Still, these connections had been forged over a decade through annual meetings and other visits. Face-to-face encounters have built trust over the years by providing a sense of a person’s full presence. This reserve of trust, a form of social capital, has allowed all parties to steer the network through the era of virtual presences imposed upon us by the pandemic.

“Hosting 'the whole person' is not possible in the virtual world.”

Other academic initiatives cannot translate. For example, the Nanovic Institute has regularly hosted a leadership program in the summer. For ten days, leaders from Catholic universities spend time on campus in 40 hours of instruction on leadership skills, philanthropy development, and program and organizational evaluation. A critical element of the success of the program is the time outside of the presentations: time spent eating together, developing a network, taking time to reflect outside of their daily work environment, and celebrating Mass together in the All Saints Chapel in Jenkins Nanovic Halls. Physical presence is key to the experience of hospitality, which is itself part of the designed course experience. Hosting a webinar, even when done effectively, has fewer opportunities to attend to details and robustly welcome the guest.

On hospitality

Indeed, like many academic and outreach units across this and other universities, the Nanovic Institute has a tradition of hosting events and visitors. In our case, the Institute’s physical hospitality flows from a deep and articulated sense of the Catholic mission of respecting human dignity and relationality. Details matter, and it is in this cultivated attention that we realize community. Thus, we provide detailed logistics for a car seat for a visitor traveling with an infant, we arrange for a visitor’s spouse to have a reserved music room to practice her instrument, we dash across campus to find a particular requested meal or refreshment.

These moments recall a passage from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, when the butler recalled that “Lord Darlington remarked to me: ‘By the way, Stevens, Lord Halifax was jolly impressed with the silver the other night. Put him into a quite different frame of mind altogether.’” The passage describes an off-the-record meeting between the Lord and the German Ambassador; the butler concludes that “it is not simply my fantasy that the state of the silver had made a small, but significant contribution towards the easing of relations.” Attention to the details can yield unexpected fruits and set the stage for building relationships, the space for scholarship, and the refreshment of fellows and visitors.  

The point of hospitality is to offer a person a “home away from home.” This makes sense only if the person has actually left home. Hosting “the whole person” is not possible in the virtual world, however well-executed. Detailed hospitality, while not an end in itself, bears many fruits.

As educational institutions and diplomats emerge from the current situation, an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of encountering each other in person presents itself. Even as online encounters continue, and as institutions and states look to long-term budgeting, planning and carbon considerations, the value of in-person meetings and diplomacy must not be underestimated. Whatever philosophers may say about the “mind-body” problem, from the perspective of integral human development it is clear that, whenever possible, body as well as mind must be present, if the whole person is to be recognized and encountered.


Monica Caro is senior associate director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.

This article is part of a series of blog posts published by the Keough School of Global Affairs. Dignity and Development provides in-depth analysis of global challenges through the lens of integral human development.