It’s become all too familiar these days: the dreaded video meeting. You log in to what feels like your hundredth Zoom meeting of the day. You do the obligatory greeting and wave. And then you mute your mic.
Then, for the next hour, you try to ignore the box in the corner that shows exactly how exhausted you think you look, wondering if your colleagues will notice the pile of laundry you forgot to stash away before turning on your cameras.
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No matter how hard you try to pay attention to whatever your boss is presenting, your eyes will not cooperate and instead, you keep finding yourself watching... yourself.
And there’s a very good reason for this: we simply were not designed to communicate over webcam. When trying to connect with colleagues in yet another Zoom call in an endless stream of video meetings, we’re immediately at a disadvantage because so much of what our brains rely on for communication, body language, is restricted out of view.
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“A lot of this is just automatic. It's sort of hard-wired in terms of how we interpret another person's body language or facial expressions. It happens automatically and it happens in real-time, which is one difference with video conferencing and Zoom is that there's oftentimes a delay in the transmission of our communications,” says Dr. Julie Ancis, professor of psychology and director of cyberpsychology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
“We're hearing things later. The other person is hearing what we're saying at a later time, and that really interferes with just the general flow timing of our conversations,” she says.
The awkward cadence of our conversations aren’t the only ways our Zoom meetings feel unnatural. It’s not often that we take business meetings from our bedrooms or kitchens, with our children or pets disrupting calls. And we’re doing all of this while we can see ourselves in real time.
Ancis says stressful situations, like one would find when faced with disjointed interpersonal communication, the unprecedented exposure or our personal spaces to our colleagues and managers, and the fact that our own image is unnaturally positioned directly in front of us, can cause increased psychological arousal.
If you’re distracted by your own video during video meetings, it’s for good reason: your brain is quite simply overwhelmed.
“It's like walking around with a mirror in front of us on a regular all day basis. It's very, very unnatural and leads us to this self-focus,” Ancis says. “And it makes it more difficult to really attend to the other human being who we’re communicating with when we're constantly looking at our own images on the screen.”
It’s no surprise that in a workplace survey, video conferencing platform Highfive found that:
- 59% of adults felt more self-conscious over video than they would in real-life
- 48% said they were more concerned with how they looked on camera than what they were presenting in the meeting
- 30% spent the majority of the time in meetings looking at their own face.
The best way to combat the stress of video conferencing is to simply turn off your self-view. Most video conferencing platforms offer users the option to hide their video from themselves. Regardless of whether your feel self-conscious on camera or get distracted by your own good looks, removing self-view from the equation means you’ll be giving your brain a much-needed break.
And while studies show that people are working longer hours and attending more meetings while working remote than they were before the pandemic, Ancis recommends doing what you can to space out meetings and give your brain a break from the constant overstimulation.
“Many of us are going from meeting to meeting to meeting, when in pre-pandemic days, there was an accounting for timing or transportation between meetings, taking restroom breaks. So we're not really necessarily building that in. And I think we need to to really consider that and build that into our experiences in video conferencing kind of world.”
Even if you can’t dial back the number of video meetings you attend during the day, there is a silver lining.
“Even if you're having a video conference, don't worry," Ancis says. "Don't be stressed out because everybody is looking at their own self-image, too.”