This post is also available in Dutch.
Imagine your laptop screen keeps freezing, the video of your friend or colleague suddenly lags and their speech sounds like a robot. You want to talk, but you are not sure about when to start your turn in conversation. There is an awkward silence. The screen turns black.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, face-to-face communication has mostly taken place via video calls, while people are confined to their homes to try to contain the virus from spreading. In order to stay connected and continue to work, many people around the world replaced in-person interaction with a virtual environment using video meeting apps, like Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, et cetera. Workspace communication tools, like Slack and Teams, have also been more important than ever.
Although these platforms are great tools to help us stay in touch, there are several well-known drawbacks such as problematic privacy policies, poor encryption resulting in trolls inviting themselves in group calls, quality of the video call, restrictions in the maximum amount of time of call duration or even the number of participants, and additional costs for different types of accounts. You might also have noticed video communication to be much more mentally exhausting than normal, face-to-face interaction. But why does video conferencing elicit so much fatigue?
Virtual communication can be hard on the brain
All communication, be it face-to-face or online, requires concentration. This concentration is necessary to decipher the meaning of the message the other person is trying to convey. Human communication consists of more than just speech, as additional meaning can be derived from nonverbal* cues such as facial expressions, eye gaze, gestures, and different body postures. These cues help us to understand and recognize what is being conveyed, and plan a good response in return.
However, video call systems are inherently delayed or distorted, and the synthetisation of image and audio adds many artifacts. People are framed only from the shoulders up, restricting the number of signals we can perceive by the rest of the body. All of this makes it harder to grasp nonverbal cues, and therefore requires more focus than a natural face-to-face interaction. Even more challenging are multi-party meetings involving multiple screens in gallery view, forcing the brain to decode the nonverbal cues of multiple people at once, and often failing to do so. This results in group video calls becoming less collaborative and more like conversations between two people while the rest listens, as parallel conversations are not possible. All of these aspects result in people behind their computer screens feeling even more isolated, anxious, and disconnected, resulting in exhausted conversation partners. Moreover, these aspects influence people’s opinion of their interlocutor: people perceive their interlocutor to be less attentive, friendly, or active if there are long delays between speaker turns.
Of course, there are many other variables that could potentially play a role in the fatigue people experience, since the lockdown has disrupted our regular lifestyle in various ways. The aspects of our lives that used to be in separate environments, such as work and private life, are now all happening in the same location, combining social roles we used in different contexts all in one place. We have less variety in environment and social interaction, and are more likely to experience more negative feelings in general. Thus, despite video communication tools generating mental exhaustion, they do help to create a sense of togetherness during the pandemic by allowing us to maintain relationships and connect to our family, friends and colleagues remotely.
But how can we overcome this mental fatigue during online video conferencing? Obviously, you can improve the quality of your video calls by having a stable connection or dedicated internet. You can use a headset to avoid an echo, or rest your laptop on a pile of books. Concentration can be helped by putting your screen on the side instead of straight ahead, and by building breaks during and between meetings. You can even turn off your camera to avoid feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated, and save energy for when you really need to perceive non-verbal cues. Finally, you can try to limit your video calls to strictly those that are necessary, and use shared files with notes instead (see also this site for tips). Although the perfect solution does not exist, there are many small steps you can take to make video calling a bit more comfortable!
The term ‘nonverbal communication’ is used here for simplicity to refer to the non-vocal aspects of human communication, such as facial signals, manual gestures, and body movements. These visual signals, together with speech or manual signs, form what is commonly referred to as multimodal communication.
This has been written originally for the blog MPITalkling of our colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen.
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Writer: Naomi Nota
Editor: Francie Manhardt, Melis Çetinçelik
Dutch translation: Ava Creemers
German translation: Bianca Thomsen
Final editing: Merel Wolf