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What I Miss About Real Life

I had four Zoom meetings one day last week and I was exhausted when the last one ended. Attending four meetings in one 8-hour period was a regular thing in pre-pandemic days, so I have been curious about why this new world takes so much out of me. Living in such unknown times is certainly part of my angst, but I’ve been feeling something else that I can’t quite put my finger on. Finally, in another meeting, I sat and stared at all of the little boxes in front of me and realized what it was. Despite being able to “see” each other on the screen, we’re spending our days communicating with tiny, grainy talking heads. I can sort of see people’s facial expressions, but that is all the nonverbal communication I can discern. If the light is bad, I don’t even have that.

Experts estimate that 60-90 percent of communication is nonverbal. Nonverbal includes facial expressions, gestures, postures, and tone and pitch of voice. It also includes kinesics, which is the academic term for body language, and proxemics, or how we use space. Whether we're aware of it or not, we pay attention to all of these things when we talk to each other in real life, face to face. Obviously, we can see some of that on the Zoom screen, but it’s pretty distant. Much of it we can’t see at all. Even if I look directly at the person I’m talking to on the screen, I’m not actually looking at the camera, so it doesn’t look like I’m having any kind of real eye contact. Most of what I see is people looking away from the screen—if they have their cameras on at all—or down at their phones.

I’m exhausted these days, partly from having to work so hard to find meaning in one-dimensional conversations with people via my computer.

In life before COVID, going to meetings wasn’t my favorite thing, but the best part of it was the human contact. I would sit next to someone I liked and maybe chat for a few minutes before the actual meeting started. I might catch the eye of someone across the room and smile or wave. During meetings in those days, I could glance around the room and see how people were responding to what was being said. It’s part of the normal way we all seek feedback, whether we’re the ones talking or not. If people aren’t paying attention, or are frowning, or have their arms folded in front of them, it gives a sense of how they feel about what’s going on. Granted, they may just be bored or impatient and they need to get back to something more important, but that’s information, as well.

Now, in a big meeting, if I actually want to check how people are responding, I need to go through each square, maybe even to a second or third screen, if it’s a large group. And what I can discern from this is pretty small. If they’re still smiling and looking toward their computer, that’s good. Beyond that, if they’re on their phone or they’re answering emails—which obviously happened before the pandemic, too—I don’t necessarily know what’s going on with them.

The other thing about nonverbal communication, of course, is that it often belies the actual words being said. We’ve all had someone tell us they are “fine,” when they look mad or upset. It’s the nonverbal communication that gives us the true picture. It also just helps us to be more present with people we care about. If I know someone in a Zoom meeting might be struggling with what’s being said, I can lean way in to show my concern, but they can’t even tell that I’m doing that.

Even outside of Zoom, this new world is sadly lacking a nonverbal context. At the grocery store, when I pass someone in an aisle, I find myself smiling, as I would have pre-pandemic, and they have no idea because I'm wearing a mask. It just seems as if I’m walking past them staring.

When I occasionally see close friends in a socially distanced setting, I can’t hug them or sit close to them on the couch or even pat them on the back. I don’t think bumping elbows is ever going to take the place of anything meaningful for me.

And so, I think I’m exhausted these days, partly from having to work so hard to find meaning in one-dimensional conversations with people via my computer. Is that person sad? Upset? Confused? I find myself almost yelling sometimes because I can’t tell if I’m being clear in some explanation, relying on only a little fuzzy box for reassurance. It’s like trying to do a puzzle with only half the pieces.

Clearly there isn’t anything we can do about this at this point, and it is absolutely amazing to me that we get as much done as we do. I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but what I wouldn’t give for a real meeting—with actual interaction, looking around the room to see everyone laughing, a meaningful look with someone who says something important or funny, and even those fattening donuts we all shared the cost of. It turns out it’s a lot of work talking to a flat screen, and I miss all of you more than I can say.

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