Blurry screens, echoey audio, and trouble knowing when it's your turn to talk: These are just some of the annoyances that can go along with conversations on platforms such as Skype, FaceTime and Zoom.
And at a time when people are increasingly dependent on videoconferencing tools to stay connected, experts say another issue is emerging among those who use them: feelings of fatigue and burnout.
"It's mentally exhausting,” says Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. “You're trying to listen, you're trying to participate, you're trying to read nonverbal cues, you're trying to keep track of who's talking when, you're acutely aware of being watched — and you almost can't help but look at yourself at the same time."
While users might assume that videoconferencing is tiring because it lacks real-life cues like body language (meaning you have to work harder to keep up with the conversation), Wright and other experts say that, in fact, these calls can be tiring for the opposite reason — because they turn the parts of in-person conversations that happen subconsciously and sparingly, like sustained eye contact, into a torrent of information.
"In the real world, effective body language rules — like how close you get to someone and when you look into someone's eyes — are done very judiciously,” says communications professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “What happens with these platforms is they take a cue that is used very infrequently in person — for example, staring directly into somebody's eyes — and apply it at a large scale, constantly."
The result? As Bailenson puts it: “It's not always the case that more equals more,” meaning that the constant, up-close nature of video calls, rather than being uplifting, can leave even the most extroverted among us feeling over-scrutinized and struggling to connect.
But with the need to rely on videoconferencing to keep up with friends, family and work obligations likely to persist for some time, experts say that small changes can be the key to improving our on-screen interactions.
Practice makes perfect
"My number one piece of advice is to practice,” says Bailenson, who recently threw a successful birthday party for his daughter (which required coordinating with a local performer, plus family members across the country) over video.
He recommends getting acquainted with whatever platform you'll be using in advance and taking the time to get used to the software and set up your own background.
If need be, he says, ask a willing, tech-savvy friend or family member for a tutorial, or even to conduct a practice call with you.