Why video conferencing is so tiring for participants, and what to do about it

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In con­nec­tion with the iso­la­tion and tran­si­tion to remote work, many users are faced with a new prob­lem for them­selves. Today, peo­ple are forced to con­stant­ly par­tic­i­pate in video con­fer­ences with col­leagues, friends and rel­a­tives. But no mat­ter what ser­vice is used for this — Google Meet, Zoom, Face­Time or old-fash­ioned Skype — soon­er or lat­er the user begins to notice an unpleas­ant fea­ture. Video con­fer­enc­ing is tedious as hell.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, when peo­ple did not encounter this prob­lem so often and mas­sive­ly, few peo­ple paid atten­tion to it. Now that quar­an­tine has dri­ven mil­lions of peo­ple under the lens­es of web­cams, the phe­nom­e­non has final­ly been noticed.

zoom fatigue

Recent­ly BBC and Wall Street Jour­nal pub­lished arti­cles with a sto­ry about the phe­nom­e­non called “Zoom-fatigue”. Sonya Dreisler, a San Fran­cis­co-based con­sul­tant, told the WSJ that she often used Zoom to reach clients before the lock­down. But now, but now that the same ser­vice has also been used to con­tact fam­i­ly and rel­a­tives, it has sud­den­ly become extreme­ly tedious.

A New York City law stu­dent told MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Reviewthat after long remote ses­sions on Zoom, ordi­nary video chats with friends and fam­i­ly turn into real tor­ture. Try­ing to avoid such com­mu­ni­ca­tion can cause feel­ings of guilt, because in iso­la­tion peo­ple do not have much space for com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

In gen­er­al, many peo­ple are now find­ing that video chats tire them much more than actu­al inter­ac­tion with a live per­son. Accord­ing to sci­en­tists, the effect of “non-ver­bal over­load” is to blame.

Tension and non-verbal overload

The prob­lem is that an online con­fer­ence is fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent from a face-to-face meet­ing. Accord­ing to Suzanne Degges-White, a pro­fes­sor at North­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty, face-to-face com­mu­ni­ca­tion allows inter­locu­tors to be more relaxed. When you sit face to face with anoth­er per­son, you are more involved in the dia­logue, but at the same time, you do not feel like you are speak­ing in front of him. “In a video chat, we have to be much more care­ful about what words we choose and when we enter into a dia­logue”says Pro­fes­sor Degges-White.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in this for­mat is very dif­fer­ent from per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion, as it lacks use­ful phys­i­cal cues. Dur­ing a per­son­al meet­ing, we can assess the psy­cho­log­i­cal cli­mate and mood of the inter­locu­tor. But in the video­con­fer­ence mode, we prac­ti­cal­ly do not see and do not feel these lit­tle “tips”. Accord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Degges-White, due to the inabil­i­ty to read body lan­guage, we lose about 85% of non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. That is why video­con­fer­enc­ing requires more focus from the par­tic­i­pant than nat­ur­al face-to-face con­tact.

“Many of us expe­ri­ence non-ver­bal over­load”, explains Jere­my Bailen­son, found­ing direc­tor of the Vir­tu­al Inter­ac­tion Lab at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. Beilen­son recent­ly pub­lished in the WSJ a long arti­cleded­i­cat­ed to this phe­nom­e­non.

This is espe­cial­ly evi­dent in ser­vices like Zoom, which were not designed for social inter­ac­tion in the for­mat in which they are now used. “In a nor­mal work­place, peo­ple rarely exchange long glances or look direct­ly into each oth­er’s eyes for long peri­ods of time. But in Zoom, you see a grid of peo­ple in front of you who are look­ing at you from the screen through­out the entire con­fer­ence.- says Bailen­son.

“Fight or Flight”

In one exper­i­ment at Stan­ford, Bailen­son and his col­leagues stud­ied how a per­son is affect­ed by such a “con­stant gaze” from the screen. Tests have shown that the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of stu­dents who expe­ri­ence a vir­tu­al gaze actu­al­ly increas­es. But it also increas­es the dis­com­fort. “Peo­ple report that they are very uncom­fort­able look­ing at the faces of the inter­locu­tors dur­ing the entire con­fer­ence”- explains Beilen­son.

Accord­ing to him, the secret lies in evo­lu­tion. Over the past thou­sand years, man has prac­ti­cal­ly not evolved. That is, despite all the high-tech toys, bio­log­i­cal­ly mod­ern peo­ple do not dif­fer from prim­i­tive hunters from the African savan­nah.

At the same time, since a per­son has devel­oped as a social being, his brain auto­mat­i­cal­ly pays atten­tion to the faces of oth­er indi­vid­u­als. When the user sees close-up faces of inter­locu­tors on the screen in front of him, his brain auto­mat­i­cal­ly reacts to this as close atten­tion to his own per­son.

Just imag­ine that you are on a bus and all of a sud­den all the pas­sen­gers turn around and start star­ing at you. Nat­u­ral­ly, you will expe­ri­ence dis­com­fort. Your brain auto­mat­i­cal­ly inter­prets this behav­ior as a threat. Anx­i­ety and sub­se­quent fatigue in such a sit­u­a­tion is due to a nat­ur­al bio­log­i­cal fight or flight response. And you will nev­er be able to explain to your “inner mon­key” that the faces on the screen are not real. Mech­a­nisms that have been cre­at­ed by mil­lions of years of evo­lu­tion can­not be turned off so eas­i­ly.

virtual confusion

Also, psy­cho­log­i­cal stress can be asso­ci­at­ed with the effect of “per­for­mance”. By words Accord­ing to Clem­son Uni­ver­si­ty Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor Maris­sa Schuf­fler, a per­son par­tic­i­pat­ing in a video con­fer­ence may expe­ri­ence social pres­sure, as it seems to him that every­one is look­ing at him. “Pub­lic speak­ing is always a ner­vous and stress­ful activ­i­ty”says Schuf­fler.

Also, silence in a video call can feel even more awk­ward than a pause in nor­mal con­ver­sa­tion. 2014 study pub­lished in the jour­nal Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Human-Com­put­er Stud­iesfound that even a delay caused by tech­ni­cal prob­lems in a con­fer­ence call can make a per­son think that the oth­er par­ty is less friend­ly towards him.

The sit­u­a­tion is fur­ther com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that in quar­an­tine, almost the entire social life of a per­son takes place on the Inter­net. This cre­ates the effect of “vir­tu­al con­fu­sion”.

Accord­ing to Gian­piero Petriglieri, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the INSEAD research insti­tute, peo­ple in dif­fer­ent places engage in dif­fer­ent social roles. But now the con­text has col­lapsed. “Imag­ine walk­ing into a bar where you’re talk­ing to pro­fes­sors, talk­ing to your par­ents, and hav­ing a roman­tic date at the same time. That would be weird, would­n’t it? But that’s what we’re doing right now.”, explains Petriglieri. The Inter­net has become a sin­gle chan­nel that peo­ple use to com­mu­ni­cate with their acquain­tances from dif­fer­ent social groups. And it’s con­fus­ing.

How to deal with the load?

There are sev­er­al tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions that could help mit­i­gate the effects of zoom fatigue. For exam­ple, accord­ing to Jere­my Bailen­son, instead of real faces, users could use vir­tu­al ani­mat­ed avatars. This would max­i­mize social con­tact while min­i­miz­ing the afore­men­tioned non-ver­bal over­load. Alas, the tech­nol­o­gy of vir­tu­al avatars is not yet avail­able to every­one and is too com­pli­cat­ed for a sim­ple user. But even the aver­age per­son can take some effec­tive steps.

“Don’t have one video con­fer­ence after anoth­er, — rec­om­mends Pro­fes­sor Suzanne Degges-White. — Take a break between meet­ings and get some fresh air».

The pro­fes­sor also rec­om­mends sep­a­rate your con­di­tion­al “home office” from the con­di­tion­al “res­i­dence zone”. It does­n’t have to be done phys­i­cal­ly. It will be enough to change the light­ing and change clothes. It is impor­tant to let your brain know that there has been a “mode change” from home to work and vice ver­sa.. “When you feel like you’re work­ing around the clock and can’t leave the ‘office’, hav­ing tricks to help sep­a­rate work and leisure becomes very impor­tant.”says Pro­fes­sor Degges-White.

Also it is use­ful to turn off the cam­era dur­ing video con­fer­ences. For exam­ple, dur­ing one of the con­fer­ences with col­leagues, Jere­my Bailen­son decid­ed to intro­duce a rule: the cam­era should be turned on only for the per­son who is speak­ing at the moment. This real­ly helped reduce the ten­sion, as the silent faces dis­ap­peared from the screens of the par­tic­i­pants.

In addi­tion, Bailen­son notes that many ser­vices, such as Zoom, allow you to con­trol the posi­tion and size of win­dows with images of oth­er peo­ple. And if you are uncom­fort­able look­ing at the faces of the inter­locu­tors, you can sim­ply reduce or hide them. «Play with the set­tings to find the ones you feel com­fort­able with.»he rec­om­mends.

Final­ly, you can sim­ply stop using the com­put­er. “Just use your phone”, — says Bailen­son. Pro­fes­sor Degges-White also approves of this pro­pos­al. “Com­mu­ni­ca­tion can be much less stress­ful if you hear only the voice of the inter­locu­tor,” — she says.

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