explainer

Feel like you need to start 'digital distancing'? You're not alone.

Video calls have been a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’ve allowed many businesses to keep operating, teams to stay connected, patients to continuing seeing therapists, and friends and family to bridge the gap created by life-saving physical distancing measures.

We all know this. So, why do Zoom meetings or FaceTime chats sometimes leave us feeling drained?

Shouldn’t we be craving interaction? Shouldn’t we be energised by seeing our loved ones’ faces, or at least feeling #blessed that we can?

Watch: The different kinds of people in isolation.

Video by Mamamia

If you tend to feel listless after pressing the hangup button, there are perfectly good reasons for it.

Communicating this way, this often and for this long isn’t something most people are used to. And there’s a lot going on — neurologically and psychologically — when we do.

Here are some of the factors that contribute to video calls being more strenuous than face-to-face interaction.

Why video calls can be so draining.

1. We have fewer non-verbal cues to draw from.

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What we say is only one part of communication. We also send and interpret messages via hand gestures, posture, eye contact, distance from each other, and so on.

A lot of these non-verbal cues are lost over video chat, thanks to the size of the screen, the way the vision is framed, internet lags or poor video quality.

Take microexpressions, for example. As Western University researcher, Anna Rudkovska, explained via The Conversation, these tiny, subconscious facial movements are critical during a conversation, but can easily be missed on a phone or computer screen.

“Since our brains pick up and process microexpressions faster than we can consciously understand them, we are provided with a seemingly consistent stream of information that can help us direct the flow of conversation,” she wrote.

“When that stream is broken, we are forced to consciously engage and process facial expressions, a task that previously was automatic. This can lead to fatigue or misunderstandings.”

2. We’re not used to looking at our own face.

We’re now having conversations in which we can see our own faces.

As well as making us more focused on how we look, it makes us far more conscious of how we react physically to what’s being said.

As Bond University’s Libby Sander (an assistant professor of organisational behaviour) and Oliver Bauman (an assistant professor at the School of Psychology) noted via The Conversation, “People feel like they have to make more emotional effort to appear interested and, in the absence of many non-verbal cues, the intense focus on words and sustained eye contact is exhausting.”

3. Conversations are more focused.

This might sound like a good thing, but it can actually make interactions more stressful.

Consider a normal social catchup at a cafe or at someone’s home. You’d both be moving around, looking at a menu, engaging with other people or your surroundings.

On a video call, though, you’re typically in a single location with little to focus on but each other.

“When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform,” Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, told the BBC. “Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.”

Listen: Is working from home working, and could it change our careers? The Quicky investigates.

4. Silence is more stressful.

In typical, face-to-face interactions, silence is a normal part of the flow of a conversation. But that doesn’t translate to calls — video or regular voice calls.

We tend to be less comfortable with silence while using technology because a) we lack some of those non-verbal cues (mentioned above) that might help us interpret that silence, and b) it can signal a failure in the technology.

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As well as putting everyone a little more on edge, it can influence how the people on the call relate to each other — particularly in a professional setting.

Research published in the Journal of Human-Computer Studies in 2014 found that even a 1.2-second delay during a tele-conference leads the audience to perceive the person talking as less attentive, friendly and self-disciplined.

5. Our different ‘worlds’ have collapsed.

Our work lives, social lives, romantic lives, school lives and family lives are suddenly all happening in the same space.

As Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead told the BBC, we normally favour variety in those different aspects of ourselves. And when that reduces or collapses, we become more vulnerable to negative feelings.

“Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents or date someone — isn’t it weird? That’s what we’re doing now,” he said. “We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis, and our only space for interaction is a computer window.”

6. The medium reminds us we can’t be together.

For most people, phone calls or text messages are the most common way we stay in touch.

Suddenly breaking with that and leaning heavily on video calls can serve as a reminder of how dramatically things have changed.

The solution: Practise some digital distancing.

Keeping in touch with loved ones can be a very effective way of easing stress and anxiety during isolation, as well as improving overall mental health.

But if the mounting schedule of video chats seem to be having the opposite effect, it may be worth establishing a few boundaries for yourself.

If group calls are necessary for your work, request to keep your camera switched off occasionally.

For one-on-one meetings or social catchups, reduce the number of video calls each day/week and replace a couple with a chat over the phone. As Sander and Bauman argued, “Sometimes, the phone is better. On the phone, we only have to concentrate on one voice and can walk around, which can help thinking.”

Of course, we all have to adapt during this strange, new world. But we also need to be kind to ourselves and come together in ways that fill us up, rather than drain us.

Read more about COVID-19:

The current situation around COVID-19 might be making you feel scared or uncertain. It’s okay to feel this way, but it’s also important to learn how to manage feelings of anxiety during this time. To download the free PDF: Anxiety & Coronavirus – How to Manage Feelings of Anxiety click here.

Feature Image: Getty.

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