Why do we feel compelled to wave goodbye on Zoom?


We don’t wave when walking out of a business meeting in person. Here’s why we do this and other somewhat weird habits that have emerged on video conferencing calls.

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Last night, when signing off from my Zoom book group meeting, all of us waved goodbye to one another. I never thought about it before, but then I realized I’ve also done it on other occasions when talking to friends, and maybe even on work calls.

I’m not the only one, of course. And there are other odd habits people do on video calls, like picking up their cats and showing them off. Or bringing their kids into the screen. Or getting on video calls not wearing pants. Or no makeup. They show up wearing pajamas. They eat and drink. The list goes on.

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These are things we would never have done in the time I refer to as BP–before pandemic. It’s as though our manners have completely changed. Therapists and behavioral professionals say it’s all part of how we are adapting and adjusting to virtual technology.

“I’m an absolute waver,” said Mindy Skura, a licensed social worker and school adjustment counselor, in Maynard, Mass. Public Schools. “It replaces the handshake. When you’re in front of a screen it’s more forced and stilted and I think we’re trying to compensate so we almost go overboard with the nonverbal gestures.”

Because it’s harder to predict remotely when someone is going to speak, Skura believes we have turned to waving and other gestures. She said she has noticed this doesn’t just happen at the end of a call—she has seen people do it while someone is midsentence and another person needs to leave a meeting. “So they acknowledge they’re leaving in a polite wave,” Skura said.

A wave at the end of a call “may have to do with people’s need to follow social graces,” agreed Susan Trotter, a trained clinical psychologist who now works as a relationship coach in Natick, Mass. 

People are stress and exhausted

Skura has noticed other behaviors on Zoom calls that she hasn’t necessarily seen in person with both colleagues and students, like people twirling their hair, and looking at themselves in the camera.

“It’s a sudden view of you and it’s easy to get self-conscious,” she said. “I have shut myself off in the settings on Zoom so other people still see you, but I’m not constantly looking at me. I’m able to just focus on other people and not have that constant reflection.”

Skura said this makes it “less exhausting,” not having that constant pressure to feel you have to look your best. “It’s such a temptation when you see yourself—you want to adjust and fix [something on your face] like when you’re walking by a store window.”

She has also found herself “nodding aggressively when people are talking,” and thinks that is because part of her work is teaching social skills to students in grades 4-8 who are on the Autism spectrum and who have learning disabilities. “I’m so aware of modeling what I preach.” Nodding, making eye contact, and shifting your body squarely in front of the camera shows someone you are actively listening and invested in the conversation, Skura said.

The concern over how we look on video calls or opting to turn video off reflects how self-conscious or confident people are, Trotter said. “It may also be a way to reduce the stress that can come from being on video; people relax more when they are not on video.”

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Twirling hair reflects anxiety or nervousness, or it may be a function of being stressed, she added.  

“Many patients have used Zoom as an opportunity to introduce me to their pets, walk me through their spaces—exposing me to all parts of their home lives typically not accessible during a standard therapy session,” said Jamie Bennett, a New York City-based LISW, who specializes in individual therapy for young adults experiencing life transitions.

“I think this behavior of ‘show-and-telling’ represents patients’ subconscious desires to reinforce a closeness to the therapist,” Bennett said. “It may function to compensate for the fact we do not have the luxury of being in a physical therapy room, which is more conducive to immediate and sustained connection.”

Early in the pandemic, when video calls became more prevalent, Skura said she noticed people touching their faces a lot, which so many people were doing it prompted advisories from public health officials against doing it.

“At the beginning it was so unnatural to be communicating with people this way, I think it was almost like a nervous tic because people didn’t know what to do with themselves and where to place their hands,” Skura said. “People were testing the waters on how to look attentive.”

Zoom fatigue is real

Skura has noticed some other odd habits on video calls that she said she doesn’t see in person with her students. “They may be laying down on camera or eating and chomping,” she said. “They wouldn’t come to my office eating. And they wouldn’t be laying down in my office.”

To counteract this, Skura said she does “a lot of verbal coaching and reminding students that we want to show people we’re interested in what they have to say and … it doesn’t make other people feel good” to hear them chomping. Or she’ll model the behavior “to show them what it feels like at the other end.”

What this all boils down to, Skura says, is a Zoom fatigue phenomenon.

Others agree. For the past few months during social distancing, our meetings and brainstorming sessions and celebrations and other get-togethers have been replaced by virtual technology and this has required a big adjustment, said Daron Robertson, CEO of Bhive, a remote work virtual technology.

There are three main reasons Zoom fatigue occurs, according to Robertson:
1.       Eye strain. This is caused by looking at a computer screen for long periods of time.
2.      Inability to easily read facial expressions and body language. This puts a huge strain on the body, he said. “Since video fails to accurately recreate the in-person experience with no direct eye contact, your brain is working overtime to interpret others. ‘Are they listening to me or reading email?’ You never know because the eyes are looking away in both scenarios,” Robertson said.
3.      Vanity distraction. “Since you are watching yourself speak, your brain becomes quickly distracted by wondering if you’re showing enough engagement, smiling, etc. Those thoughts are very exhausting.” 

How to eliminate Zoom fatigue and odd Zoom behaviors

Robertson advises people to take breaks and disconnect when they can. “Take advantage that you’re home with your family by having lunch outside in your back yard or even front yard,” he said.

We should also exercise our brains. “Cardio is great for the heart, but exercises like meditation and yoga are great for the brain,” he said. 

Also, it’s important to find alternative ways to stay connected. For example, “Bhive offers a side-by-side camera, so it’s not directly in your face,” Robertson said. “It’s a much more comfortable way to work together on video.”

To project confidence, empathy, and leadership on Zoom and other video conference calls, Trotter recommends maintaining eye contact and to “keep movements small and slow. Sit with good posture [and] be mindful of the background.”

She also suggests talking slowly and pausing between important points. Echoing Skura, Trotter said you should nod and tilt your head toward the screen to show interest in what the other person is saying.

What do all these habits say about us? “It says that we desire stable levels of closeness in our relationships,” said Bennett. “During this time, people are grasping for any sense of stability and control, so if they cannot control the modality of their therapy, they assert control over their immediate spaces.”

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