Our new 'awkward' reality: Why people hate video chatting

File picture: Pexels

File picture: Pexels

Published Apr 1, 2020


It's no wonder Samantha Bergeson hates video calls.

The 25-year-old's courses at NYU, where she's a senior in the journalism school, transitioned to online video amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, during one weekly three-hour class, 30 fellow students can see straight into Bergeson's apartment.

Video chatting "kind of has this connotation of something private," she said, pointing out "people in long distance relationships use it in an intimate and romantic way."

Since she shares her apartment with her boyfriend and their dog, she's relegated to sitting on her bed during class, always hyper-conscious of how she appears, especially since some anyone can take a screenshot of the call. she tries to look as professional as the situation allows, at one point "trying to hide my Scooby-Doo PJ shirt," as she joked.

Then, after class, "there's now this huge pressure to do happy hour" over video she said, even though the calls often come with "a lot of dead air and dead space."

What's the point? "You're not really doing anything . . . You're both just sitting in a chair, staring at a computer screen," Bergeson said. "If you're looking for a human connection, a phone call might be more intimate."

Connecting with one another via webcam has become our new ritual now that about 90 percent of Americans are social distancing. Since we can't physically be together, our early-morning meetings, our happy hour gatherings, our dates, movie nights and even our dance parties now occur on our screens. Sure, video conferencing has always been around, but it's never been so ubiquitous. Zoom was downloaded 600,000 times in one week, and we're also using Skype, Google Hangouts and many others. But just because video chatting has become the new normal doesn't mean everyone enjoys it.

"I understand it's a necessary thing right now, since it's the only way I can do school," said Sophia Kianni, an 18-year-old senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. The calls, though, can make her feel anxious. She comes from a "very noisy household" where she, her sister and parents call to each other from room to room. And don't forget the two lovebirds.

Oh, the lovebirds. Kianni spends her free time as a national strategist for Fridays for Future and a national partnerships coordinator for This is Zero Hour, two environmental advocacy groups. While she's grateful that video chat is connecting her with people around the world, there have been, uhh, incidents, such as the time she was filming a podcast with Columbia University's Earth Institute.

"I was giving an answer, and my birds just started chirping and they would not stop for five minutes. I was mortified," Kianni said. Moving them would result in angry birds and a whole lot more tweeting. All she could do was wait it out.

Now, she shares her schedule with her family, and tells them not to shout during call times. And: "If you have to blend something, can you do it before that time slot?" The birds, meanwhile, usually go in the basement or the living room.

For some, though, video chatting presents more than simply an awkward inconvenience. Paige Thompson, a 12-year-old seventh grader in Santa Rosa, California, already lives with anxiety. Her school recently had a large check-in on Zoom, and she found herself dreading the call.

"For me, anxiety feels like not knowing what to do," Thompson said via email, with permission from her parents. Zoom, which she had never used, proved a perfect trigger. "As it got started, I felt awkward. Sometimes I smile when situations are awkward and I did, which made me feel embarrassed about people seeing that." Eventually she just turned off her camera.

Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist and author of "How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety," said a lot of people are uncomfortable because they feel "there's a way to do it right and a way to do it wrong, and people might feel loathe to try it if they feel they're going to screw it up."

One feature of these services - or bug, depending on your view - is that not only can others see you, but you can see yourself in a second small window.

Even without video chat, "in a socially anxious moment, we turn our attention inward. We focus on ourselves, and we start to question and monitor what we say, how we are holding our bodies," Hendriksen said. "Video chatting, because we have to look at ourselves, mimics that self-focus. In a real time conversion, we don't have access to that same mirror view."

Hendriksen suggested anxious video chatters should "just look at the other people on the call and notice that their background or outfits or lighting isn't perfect."

Because, thing is, almost everyone feels awkward on camera. Dominique Cosmetics founder Christen Dominique, 33, may have more than 4 million followers on her YouTube channel, but she hated being on camera so much at first, she almost quit. She learned some tricks, like making sure her phone was on a tripod (books are a good replacement), avoiding clothing with "loud, distracting designs" and picking a neutral background to film against. But in the end, she said, "as long as you feel comfortable and confident, you'll be fine."

Many people, though, feel video chatting leads to too many miscommunications. "Just as with an in-person meeting, there are a lot of social cues. But in this setting, it's like they've been tossed into the air by an incompetent juggler, and it's unclear where they fall," said Susan Cain, author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking."

Normally, "if you chat with your colleague and you see them smile when you say such and such, that smile has value," Cain said. But video chatting often lags. The glitches can "discombobulate." Then "there's always the question of when are you done talking and when the next person should talk," she added. "Everybody seems a little awkward, because the technology is so awkward."

Lora Strum, 25, knows that challenge all too well. After you talk, "If there's a one-second lag, and you can't tell if someone going to laugh or get mad, and it just makes me panic," Strum said. At the Atlantic, where she works as an assistant editor, she's part of a weekly Zoom meeting with more than a hundred people. But even in smaller meetings, sometimes she'll have a question or a comment but can't find the appropriate time to jump in - something that doesn't happen in person. "I sit on mute and sometimes have to accept the moment will pass," she said.

Deciding which comments to contribute now requires deliberation. Neel Somani, a 22-year-old software engineer with Airbnb who meets with a team of eight or nine engineers each morning, pointed out the video chatting "doesn't allow for asides." Make any noise, and, depending on the settings, your video feed could be prominently displayed on everyone's monitor. As a result, it's "prohibitive of small comments and quips and insights."

However you feel about it, video conferencing could remain popular after we're no longer in need of social distancing. Some are simply trying having fun with it, to embrace what only video chatting can offer.

Some of Somani's co-workers downloaded an app that lets you alter your face a la Snapchat. Maybe it doesn't help them read one another's social cues, but it allowed Somani to truthfully utter the phrase, "I had a meeting with a potato and a carrot."

The Washington Post

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