Some of you may be stuck at home in front of the computer screen for a while to come, so I decided to ask Summer to write something about Zoom for us this month. I had a rather fun experience using Zoom recently. I was trying to convince a sales person that I did not have the funds to spend nearly 160 euros a month (!) on advertising on Google (especially if I have to correct the mistakes of the auto-translated text myself!), so I thought maybe you would appreciate a little light-hearted reminder of the joys of doing business in front of a computer screen. And if you have stories of your own to tell (cat or child vying for attention, connection breaking down, ... or worse!), please share them with me and I'll put the best ones up on my Facebook page (with a free promotion and link to your site if they're really hilarious). Stay safe, sound and sane! Yours, Alexandra
Zoom Fatigue? You're Not Alone
by Summer Worsley
As June gives way to July, many workers across Europe and beyond are diligently logging on and into virtual workspaces. For many, the daily nine-to-five involves seemingly endless hours of video conferencing platform Zoom.
Once second fiddle to Skype, Zoom has risen to the fore during the coronavirus pandemic and has become the call option of choice for many businesses. Its use is so pervasive, the verb “to Zoom” and the past tense “Zoomed” are now as widely accepted as “to Google” and “Googled.”
But all the video chat seems to be wearing us down and “Zoom fatigue” has entered the popular lexicon with a bang this year.
Data from Google trends shows we’ve had so much Zoom fatigue we’ve increasingly searched for that exact phrase along with alternatives such as “Zoom fatigue is real” and “Zoom fatigue is taxing the brain.”
So what is it about Zoom that’s causing a collective sign around the world?
For many critics, it’s the video element: users feel self-conscious about their appearance or surroundings. Additionally, the lack of direct eye contact that makes decoding extra-linguistic cues that little bit harder.
Or the difficulty arises from selecting a suitable background or area to make calls from. Users who live in studio apartments have noted that making calls from their bedrooms (where they predominantly work) feels invasive — after all, not many of us want to invite the boss into our boudoirs.
Another critical issue driving Zoom loathing, as pointed out by the Economist’s Johnson column, is that Zoom calls, and video conferencing in general, disrupts the natural turn-taking model that governs human speech and conversational interactions.
What is turn-taking?
Linguists, and conversation or discourse analysts, in particular, use the notion of turn-taking to measure how well speakers adhere to broadly accepted conversational “rules.” Such rules are not set in stone but are well-established across languages and even cultures.
Breaching the rules involves transgressions such as dominating the conversation or interrupting the speaker who holds the floor. When speakers are part of a natural conversation, they often adhere to a “no gap no overlap” model of turn-taking. What this means is that the next speaker picks up the conversation without infringing on the previous speaker’s turn and without leaving too much of a gap in speech.
While the no overlap here isn’t strictly true (speakers often tag their utterances onto the end of the previous speaker’s utterance) it is done so in a way that doesn’t interrupt or disrupt the previous speaker’s speech. (Coates ‘89)
A change in speaker is determined by a broad set of linguistic and extra-linguistic clues that create a transition relevance point (TRP): a junction at which the conversation can pass from one speaker to the next.
Frequently in natural conversation, speakers also support each other with minimal responses: interjections such as yeah, yes, mm, mhm, ah, and others that are used to encourage the speaker, display agreement, and indicate that conversation partners are attending to what is being said.
Outside of a video conferencing context, turn-taking can be affected by gender, as linguists such as Eldesky, Coates, and Cameron have shown, and by power or status. In the case of the latter, so-called higher-status individuals may hold the floor longer than lower-status individuals and may interrupt more frequently.
Turn-taking and Zooming
Within the Zoomcosm though, the turn-taking model is tipped on its head somewhat. Although video calls represent a relatively stable technology, they are not without their downsides, including latency or lag.
When we speak into our computers, the audio and video data is chopped into tiny pieces, sent via a different channel to the receiving computers, and then reassembled in a process known as packet switching. But when packets are delayed, by even a tiny bit, the software providing the platform has to decide whether it will present the hastily rearranged packet as is, with glitches, or to delay the output.
According to the Economist, Zoom aims for a delay of just 150 milliseconds but this affected by multiple factors including how busy the connections are, the quality of a given participant’s connection, and others.
Although 150-millisecond delays seem unimportant, they may impact how a speaker’s utterances and the receiver’s replies are both received and perceived.
Some studies suggest that positive replies to questions are viewed as less genuine when there is a delay between the utterance and the next speaker’s reply. There’s also the possibility that video calling dehumanises speakers to a certain extent: one study showed that courts were less trusting in refugee cases when the individual in question presented via video call.
Complicating conversational matters on Zoom is that speakers may find it harder to self-select their speech turn in the conversation. Delays mean that opportunities to speak up are missed or that the first speaker, upon passing a TRP with no other speaker taking up the baton, continues speaking for longer than is necessary.
And minimal responses, a key part of human speech, become harder to jam into the flow of conversation when latency makes it difficult to respond at the “right” time.
These are all interesting areas for further study and it will be interesting to see if conversation analysts turn to video calls as the next big field warranting examination.
In the meantime, we suggest investing in some good quality blue-light-blocking glasses [Gunnar makes some great ones like gamers use, or you can also get them in DIY stores; Alexandra' note] and trying to weather the tempestuous Zoom storm as well as you can. And it could be worse… after all, most workplaces have avoided the dreaded Zoombombers, so the only troll you’ll have to contend with is that one coworker who views video conference calls as his solo stage.