En español | 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.
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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.
Guidelines are key
Social psychologist Juliana Schroeder, an assistant professor at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business, says that establishing parameters and call protocols (like keeping people's microphones muted unless they are speaking) can help things run smoothly — though she acknowledges that having to keep track of different sets of rules for different groups can be exhausting in and of itself.
Life coach and counselor Natalie Caine says that another way to keep calls enjoyable is to appoint a conversation leader in advance (someone who will, for example, ask everyone how they're doing), and then structure the call on a certain topic, like sharing family recipes, rather than relying on small talk. (Similarly, Wright recommends using videoconferencing time to do a shared activity — like watch a movie, play a game, or cook — together.)
"It's so much more meaningful and connected,” Caine says, “which is what people are longing for in isolation.”
Distract yourself — wisely
While it may not be possible on all types of video calls, like work meetings, Schroeder says that she has also heard of people coping by keeping their bodies active — even exercising — while on video calls.
It might sound counterintuitive, but engaging in a separate physical activity (or even getting up to stretch during the course of a call) can help lessen the feelings of brain drain that can come from focusing so much attention on your screen, similar to how absentmindedly doodling or pacing helps many people stay focused on the phone.
Set time limits and stay honest
Another expert tip? Don't feel obligated to schedule video calls for an entire hour, or feel shy about winding them down early if the conversation has run its course.
One way to get the best of both worlds, Bailenson says, is to start with “a little dose of video” — a few minutes for everyone to see one another and say hello — and then switch to a phone call.
And, the experts agree, just because video technology is available doesn't mean you should feel the need to abandon phone calls and other ways of keeping in touch.
Being honest about your preferred method of communication, Wright says, can open the door for others to express how they're feeling, too. “The reality is,” she says, “if we start having these conversations, I bet more people are feeling the same way.”