How swiftly we’ve adapted to being a world according to Zoom! With little other choice, the young and old have embraced it, particularly if like me you have a grandchild at distance. Yet we mustn’t forget how different it is to normal interaction. I’ve no doubt Zoom and Teams will continue to be used much more than before covid, not only as it will be some time before travel returns to normal, but also because it’ cheaper for businesses with no travel expenses. But it has a cost. Whether In quality of exchange, social etiquette, intellectual challenge or fatigue, virtual reality can take its toll.
It has changed conversation. Especially when limited to the free 45 minutes, chat may become formulaic. How are you? What are you reading? Watching on Netflix? Who has died? A bit of a grumble about politics. Obviously, similar to before but not enriched by experiencing restaurants, theatres, cinemas, or meeting people at events. Our worlds have shrunk. Along with our small talk.
Then there’s audio etiquette. Without an experienced host, exchanges can become fraught, irritating or just downright hilarious. There’s taking turns to speak. Some of us (I’ll admit, not me!) are better at this than others, while some will sit silent, I reckon more so than in the flesh. But worse is the failure to mute: a major irritant at times. That one person with feedback hums or whines across all dialogue. Worse, the times when a host hasn’t muted all but the presenter: the clank of a knife on a plate, the crunching of toast munching, the rustling of papers beside a microphone, the loud orders for cups of tea (or four-letter-word-asides on occasion) to nearby spouses. I’ve even heard background radios. Granted, wandering woofing dogs or cats can be welcome distractions, and I did enjoy the US judge turned into a cat by a child’s tinkering with his camera setting. Even on TV we’ve seen the child entering to make faces behind a parent, reminders of the stresses encountered working at home when nurseries and schools were shut. A recent tale of a senior Health official being exhorted by his toddler to come see his ‘giant jobby’ during a meeting wins the prize!
Visual etiquette is less intrusive, but still -how can people forget we can see them throughout an event? Cue the gross Nose-Picker: I’ve seen ‘bogey-regarders’ smear theirs on clothing, or worse be a ‘bogey-eater.’ True, once. Then there is the looming face. Positioning your laptop or device and checking on camera angle before transmission might be helpful. A large fuzzy face seen from below with a forest of nostril hair detail isn’t a good look for anyone. Darkened rooms or halos from ceiling lights are immaterial, but clothes are a good idea, as one Canadian MP recently found out when changing and thinking his camera was off. I’m sure we’ve all just combed the front of our hair and put on a clean top to sit in old slippers, but a young teacher relative lost all her dignity with her zoom primary class when she got up to fetch something and forgot she had cartoon PJ bottoms on below her smart blouse. Have you curated your bookshelf to ensure its titles and colours are ‘woke’? Or green-screened to pretend you are on a sunny beach? Flowers, toys, football scarves… we’ve seen them all. And if you are in a scabby kitchen, one enterprising re-fit company offers in a TV ad to cure your ’housebarrassment.’ (Not an OED word of the year, I fear).
But with zoom we lose our subtle senses. No touch of preliminary greeting, no hug or cheek kissing, no sense of how well your peers know one neither. No handshakes with their associated nuances: the firm of welcome and respect, the desultory touch of obligation. No sidelong glances, no whispers between colleagues, no note passing (fondly recalled as sole source of amusement at lengthy Health Committees).
Apart from complying with audio-visual etiquette and lack of physical contact, there are other stresses: concentrating on near vision: scanning little boxes: identifying speakers by their box illumination: scrolling through multiple windows while simultaneously reading screen chat comments and questions. Headaches. Blurred vision. Backache from hunching at a monitor. No jovial tea break wanders, chats over lunch. And God forbid you might have a work-at-home monitor spying on your work output… Move over covid and let’s zoom back to 3D hugs and notes saying, ’Wish he’d shut up. Need a cup of tea!’