Sometime last month I started feeling disenchanted with video chat. At first I thought video chat was amazing. It was heartening to see the faces of my friends and family in the midst of so much upheaval. With the steady stream of news and the constant background of grief over things that had been canceled or postponed, I felt energized knowing we still had a way to connect with familiar faces.
But then, after just a few more weeks, something shifted. I was tired after virtual meet-ups, and my friends started saying the same. Virtual meet-ups were exhausting. I started reading widely on the subject and found a number of possible explanations.
First, when we see ourselves on the screen all the time, our attention is divided between our own video and that of others. It isn’t normal to spend conversations in front of a mirror, seeing our own facial expressions, hair, lighting, clothes, etc. This divided attention keeps our brains a whole lot busier.
Next, a study of virtual meetings in 2014 demonstrated that delays of just 1.2 seconds in virtual calls make people feel that others are less friendly and attentive (International Journal of Human-Computer Studies). Our brains are wired for in-person conversations and we are designed to notice slight delays, shifts in speech patterns, focus, and non-verbal cues. We struggle to understand each other when the technology is not instantaneous.
We also don’t have access to the full range of non-verbal cues in a virtual chat. While it is true that the vast majority of how we communicate is in facial expression and tone of voice, we also learn a lot from body posture. Virtual calls wear us out because we are trying to catch non-verbal information while seeing so little of someone.
In addition, while on virtual calls, we almost always have more distractions in the background - kids, spouses, pets, deliveries, even other phone calls and texts. Essentially, we’re multitasking a whole lot more. And remember that our brains are already multitasking managing our image on the screen while paying careful attention to the limited and delayed non-verbal communication we’re receiving from others.
As if that isn’t enough, it seems likely that some of the exhaustion is related to the restlessness and frustration of being homebound. While virtual chats alleviate some of the loneliness, they also serve as a constant reminder that we aren’t seeing our friends in person. The tired feelings may have less to do with the chat itself and more to do with video chat as a constant reminder of the current situation.
So, what can we do? That study about virtual delays suggests that when a conversation is slower-paced, delays have less negative impact on perceptions. So, maybe take it slow. Pause more often. And if you are experiencing poor quality audio/video it may be best to postpone the chat to another time.
If the virtual chat allows for it, turn off the video feed of yourself or switch to a mode where the majority of your screen is allotted to the current speaker. Perhaps, back up from your screen and ask your friends to do the same so that you can see more than just faces. If you’re able, set your screen up somewhere where you can keep doing the things you would normally do while visiting and still be seen. This gives your brain a rest from watching yourself, allows your friends to see your body language, and helps the conversation feel more natural. Sitting carefully in one place to keep your face on the screen is uncomfortable and unnatural.
Virtual socializing is not the same. And it’s ok to find it disappointing. We are designed for in-person interactions that involve all of our senses. We don’t need to pretend that online birthday parties, open houses, or baby showers are the same. Acknowledging that this is different and tiring might alleviate the stress of trying to make it work. And, as with in-person socializing, it’s ok to say no sometimes...or to opt for a smaller group of people...or to be honest when you start a conversation that this is hard and exhausting but you want to see people anyway. Chances are good that your friends feel the same. Then turn from the screen and pretend they’re sitting next to you.
Amy Pass earned her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Bethel Theological Seminary. But perhaps her greatest lessons have come from raising two children and maintaining a 21-year marriage.