Mirror, Mirror on the Screen.

Mirror, Mirror on the Screen.

May 2020 

There will be time, there will be time, to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.   

T.S. Eliot. The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock

I think I have zoomitis.  Symptoms include deep fatigue, anticipatory anxiety, pervasive feelings of loss of privacy, hyper-self-consciousness of own appearance, hyper-distractibility, and probably other unpleasant symptoms yet to emerge.

More seriously, many millions have been thrust into multiple consecutive hours on various video-conferencing platforms and we are noticing some pervasive negative effects. The most common concern being voiced is how fatiguing these virtual meetings are.  Contributing to this fatigue is the anxiety and worry related to the Covid-19 Virus and its destructive impacts on national and individual economies, as well as the steep learning curve around the uses of these technologies.

There is something unnatural about this mode of communication and it’s taking its toll.  A significant cause of this is a psychological process called ‘impression management’.  Social psychologist Erving Goffman (notably in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) theorized that self-presentation plays a central function in defining a person’s role in the social order and sets the tone and direction of social interactions.  So, it is consequential. 

Impression management is the way we present ourselves to try to control the impressions others form of us.  From an evolutionary psychology perspective, there is virtually nothing more important than this in terms of our survival and likelihood to pass on our genes.  So, nature has endowed us with extraordinarily strong emotions around this with highly developed perceptual and cognitive sensitivities tuned into how we are being esteemed.

One thing is for sure: we were not designed to be looking at ourselves while we talk to others! Unintentionally, we resemble a modern-day Narcissus—unable to look away from our own reflections. But unlike that figure from Greek mythology, many of us are not drawn to how great we look, but to our multiple flaws.  We are very aware of being watched. And this is not always something of which we are conscious. 

This self-consciousness adds to the demands for real-time multitasking.  In addition to participating in our meetings, we are learning how to use the various features of these technologies while being worried about potential glitches, drop-outs and technical problems.  Aspects of our lives that used to be quite separate – work, friends, family – are all now happening in the same physical space.   We have various faces to meet the faces that we meet, and this blurring of these multiple identity boundaries is stressful.  What face are we to present when sitting in our lounge room? Our kitchen? Our bedroom? Certainly, not the habitual ones for those contexts.

There is also the abruptness of videoconferencing.  We normally ease into a meeting.  We walk down corridors, say hello to people, shake hands, have some chit-chat.  There is normally some physicality: the handshake, the pat on the shoulder, the exchange of cards or meeting notes.  These transitional processes are, as with normal ‘social grease’, important in establishing feelings of connection and safety. Given all this, it is no wonder it is exhausting.

So, what to do? 

We don’t know what the new world will look like as we gradually come to terms with C-19, but we can assume that we’ll be engaging in virtual meetings considerably more frequently than before.  So how can we alleviate Zoomitis? 

First thing is to limit video calls. Mixing it up is always a good idea as email and phone calls, chats and even the handwritten letter all have their own advantages and disadvantages. 

Reduce the extra cognitive demand of impression management: have your image off to the side, as small as possible. Or even better, have the self-view switched off.  Others can see you, but you won’t be staring at yourself—the closest you’ll get to the experience of talking in person. On Zoom, if you’re in gallery mode (the Brady Bunch–style view), all you have to do is right-click your video to display the menu and choose “Hide Self View.”

Perhaps we should build a bit of social transitioning into the beginning and ends of meetings.  Just as managers are being (well) advised to touch base with their team members about their feelings as well as about their tasks,  maybe for meetings we could have transitions-in and transitions-out to soften the awkwardness of beginnings, and the abruptness of ends of meetings.  These social customs have not yet been established, but maybe a quick check-in around the room as people log in would help. Perhaps meetings should end at 5 minutes before, or 25 minutes after, the hour allowing breakout ‘post-chats’.

We could also create our own short transition periods in between video meetings to refresh us – as with Adam Frasers’s ‘third spaces’ to slow down internally, appreciate what just occurred and prepare for the next engagement. 

Finally, we need to consciously re-establish boundaries.  We need actions which allow us to put one identity aside and put on another as we move between work and various private personas. Having two devices could be a partial solution, with the work device quarantined to certain times and locations.  With some communications coming to the work device and others to the personal device, we could dress in one way and be in one location for work, and in different attire and locations for personal interactions.  That way we can better ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’.