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11 November 2020

How Zoom calls revived my social anxiety

If you are instinctively shy or self-conscious, a video call is a uniquely awkward way to communicate. 

By Sophie McBain

People sometimes express surprise when I tell them that I used to be painfully shy, so shy that I spent my school years virtually mute, rarely speaking to anyone beyond my small circle of friends. With time I learned to like myself a little bit more and care a little bit less about what other people think of me. By my thirties I had spent enough time mingling at parties and cold-calling strangers for work that I had learned that the rewards by far outweigh my initial anxiety, and I had been rejected enough times to understand that the world doesn’t implode each time someone doesn’t like you. I had spent so many years pushing myself to be outgoing that it feels natural, enjoyable even.

And then I had my first Zoom conference call, and I was a tongue-tied, sweaty-palmed teenager again. I have waited for months for video-conferencing to become second nature, but even the thought of one – of being asked a question unexpectedly and flailing for the unmute button while I look at a grid of expectant faces and worse still, my own panicked face, unflatteringly foreshortened – makes me anxious. When I tweeted about my Zoom anxiety a few friends and colleagues messaged me in private to say they felt similar, though it’s understandable that in public people are more likely to say they don’t like Zoom than to talk about how it freaks them out. 

It is true that the pandemic would be harder and lonelier without video calls. A video call is so much better than nothing, and also nothing compared to meeting face-to-face. It is, if you are instinctively shy or self-conscious, a uniquely awkward way to communicate. Speaking in a video meeting, especially a large one, is a little like speaking on a well-lit stage: everyone can see you, but you can’t see them, or at least not clearly enough to read the non-verbal cues you might usually rely on. It is harder to tell if someone has lost interest, if they are smiling with encouragement or smirking, if they are feeling impatient, or defensive, or hurt. You cannot scan a room for reaction in the same way because a grid of 20 faces is overwhelming, especially when you are trying to interpret it at speed. You will not know if one person is literally staring at you in a way that would be frankly weird or hostile in real life. You do not know if you are on gallery view, a small figure in the crowd, or on active speaker view, enlarged so that everyone can see the pile of unwashed laundry in the far corner of your bedroom or notice that you are drinking from an ancient and unbelievably lame “Keep Calm You’re Getting Married” mug. 

Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist and the author of Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital Age, told me that she had received numerous messages from people who say that Zoom is giving them anxiety. She noticed that while someone who begins to feel anxious during an in-person meeting might try to give themselves a break, by getting another coffee or even just shifting eye-contact, on Zoom we can feel glued to our screens. Dodgen-Magee thought the platform also tends to amplify people’s natural reticence or dominance. That’s partly inevitable when you strip a group meeting of what she describes as the “extraneously wonderful kinds of energetic exchange that we have between people” and we instead interact with our colleagues and work contacts as small boxed-in faces. “You know what it’s like when you’re in a room in a meeting and someone is taking up too much space, and you can feel the energy of the room get frustrated – research tells us that stuff really matters,” she said. At the same time, videoconferencing technology prioritises the loudest and most assertive voices: because platforms such as Zoom cannot handle two or more audio channels simultaneously it hands the mic to the person who speaks loudest and with the fewest pauses. If you’re quiet, edging your way into a conversation is harder on a video call. And if you have a tendency to beat yourself up for not “leaning in”, it’s little wonder that Zoom conferences might generate extra stress. 

There are also many reasons why humans didn’t decide to routinely talk to one another while observing their own reflection in the mirror. Perhaps the simplest way to reduce Zoom anxiety is by using the self-hide function or a strategically-placed Post-it note. It’s possible, however, that those most in need of “self-hiding” are least likely to do it. 

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One way that shyness and social anxiety manifests itself is through heightened self-consciousness, a preoccupation with one’s own behaviour or appearance and how it might be perceived. One (small) study that tracked women’s gaze during Skype video calls found that those who are socially anxious spent more time looking at the image of themselves, especially if the person they were talking to was being critical of them. Dawn Branley-Bell, a cyberpsychologist at Northumbria University, has been studying how the pandemic has been affecting people with eating disorders. She wanted to emphasise that videoconferencing has overall been helpful, by enabling those with eating disorders to access remote healthcare and stay in contact with their loved ones, but had noted that some of them found their anxiety was intensified because they were able to see themselves on calls. “Although our research was specific to individuals with lived experience of eating disorders, it is possible that similar findings may be found in people more generally – particularly for individuals who may be more susceptible to feelings of self-consciousness and/or anxiety,” she said. 

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In May Vox observed how frequently women pick apart their own appearance during teleconference calls – the demands placed on women to look attractive did not cease when the hairdressers and beauty salons closed, the article lamented, but men didn’t seem concerned if they were turning up to meetings in states of dishevelment. Perhaps the problem is exacerbated by the platform: women know that they will be judged on their appearance much more than men are, but it’s much easier as a woman to forget that when you are not a 2D figure on your boss’s computer screen. Dodgen-Magee told me she didn’t think this was a gender issue as much as a general reflection of power, it is usually only straight white men who feel they don’t need to worry about how presentable they are on a Zoom call. Perhaps this holds true more generally, so that the more secure you feel about your position at work the less likely you are to worry about the features of videoconferencing that can make interactions uncomfortable.

In my case, it occurred to me that worrying about Zoom calls might serve as a useful distraction from my broader anxiety over whether my family will get sick, how this pandemic will end, and what kind of country my children will grow up in. Videoconference anxiety isn’t that bad, in the grand scheme of things. There are plenty of tips online for easing it, too. But I don’t feel the same determination to overcome video call shyness that I did as a teenager who just wanted the confidence to strike up conversation with a stranger. Zoom anxiety at least serves as a reminder that for all the efforts by tech firms to create some “frictionless”, “user-friendly” online experience, communication is often complex and messy and awkward. The awkwardness is often what makes it meaningful, and sometimes what makes it fun.