Here’s a life hack for all those who find Zoom or FaceTime or any of those other video chat platforms that seem to be running in overdrive these days: block your face.
Don’t obscure the camera’s vision of you (unless you want no one to see you), but definitely try blocking your own view of yourself, perched in the corner of your screen.
I stumbled upon this solution last week, thanks to a radio story on the CBC. The reporter, Jake Costello, said he was fed up with Zoom chats and decided that rather than retreat into the comforts brought by a couch and Netflix, he’d figure out why he was growing frustrated with the face-to-face conversation platform.
Many of us are turning to tech to try and find or maintain personal connections we had with friends and family before we were told that doing our civic duty meant staying far away from those we love. I have standing Zoom meetings with friends several days per week, and a Sunday brunch one with my family. So far, we’ve celebrated a couple birthdays, Easter and an anniversary. Only this past week did I discover a tiny trick, thanks to Costello, for how to make this excessive screen time feel slightly more natural.
Think about it. In normal face-to-face conversations, we don’t see ourselves unless we’re in a washroom or in the Galerie des glaces at Versailles. As soon as our own face comes into view on the screen then, it ever so quietly lets us know that this is not normal and that there is a gulf between ourselves and those we’re speaking with. A simple sticky note, as odd as it sounds, can help cut down on that uneasiness. (Update: Zoom also has a feature where you can simply select to not see yourself. It really is quite helpful.)
Now, maybe it’s because I gave myself a buzzcut in early March and I really don’t have to worry about what my hair is doing on chats anymore that I have fully embraced eliminating my mug from my vision on screen. But really, in day-to-day life I don’t think we necessarily pause conversations to catch glimpses of ourselves in a passing car window – at least as often as we’re tempted to now.
Beyond looking at your own face for too long and stooping into a daffodil like Narcissus, online chats also unsettle our assumption of connection by their set up. In cultures where eye contact is valued, being unable to actually maintain it is frustrating. When one person is looking directly down the lens of their webcam, their interlocutor may be staring at their screen, and thus the eye contact only goes one way at any given time. Being on Zoom also affords us the oh so tempting option to shift our cursor slightly to the left and suddenly we’re distracted by something else on our computer, nodding along at what our passive ears may suggest to be key words.
Writer Jessica Gross summed up the issue well in an April 28 letter of endorsement for the good ol’ telephone, published in the New York Times. In “What Phone Calls Have Given Me That Video Chat Can’t,” Gross explains how she too has been video chatting with friends during COVID-19, but has found the experience unfulfilling on the whole.
“Yet sitting hunched over my computer, wondering how long I have to wait before I can let myself go pee, watching a pixelated version of a person I love and saying “What?” 17 times as her voice cuts out mostly serves to emphasize how far away we really are,” Gross writes. “It’s like trying to sate hunger with cotton candy. I only miss them more.”
Whether the moral of the story is to block your face, switch to the phone, or just go read a book or for a walk to unwind is unclear. What’s clear is our need for humans in our lives and technology’s inability to fill the voids, try as it might.