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Feeling serious video chat fatigue? You can probably blame the ‘presence of absence’

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsApril 20, 2020

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As of March 2020, the video communication service Zoom saw as many as a 200 million daily users per day, up from 10 million in December 2019. With our changed professional and social behaviors in light of the coronavirus pandemic, this makes sense. Non-essential workplaces being closed have led many workers to shift to remote situations, where they rely on video meetings to commune and get stuff done. Furthermore, social distancing makes video conferences the obvious choice for fostering off-the-clock connection, too. But that doesn’t mean we’ve effectively acclimated to and accepted being only semi-present—that is, not sharing physical space—in meetings, trivia nights, and movie screenings. In fact many of us are now feeling video-chat fatigue, and psychologists say that “presence of absence” might be a huge reason why.

“The phrase ‘presence of absence’ comes from a Portuguese word saudade,” says mental-health counselor Sonyia Richardson, PhD, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. “It’s used to describe a deep state of heaviness and separation. So we’re on a call together, and we’re in the same space virtually, but there’s still an underlying pain of being physically separated.” Yep: The Portuguese, long ago, articulated the strange reality of being both virtually connected and physically apart from those you love during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The ‘Presence of absence’ describes a deep state of heaviness and separation. We’re on a call, in the same space virtually, but there’s still an underlying pain of being physically separated.” —Sonyia Richardson, LCSW

Every person carries physical energy, but that energy is hard to pick up on through a 2-D interface, which might explain why you may feel like your e-meetings and social gathering seem surreal and disconnected. “The presence of absence is focused on emotional states: how we show up in spaces and how we connect with people before us,” says Dr. Richardson. “There has been research on a special group of brain cells that are responsible for compassion called mirror neurons. And so what happens is, we begin to mirror people’s expressions of emotion from the moment they walk in the room.”

Zoom, she says, can strip us of these physical cues and leave us feeling a lack of connection. But armed with the proper tools and tips, Dr. Richardson says you can pick up on the moods of others without, for example, noticing their eyes are red or they seem tired. Below, she offers six ways to improve upon the video chatting challenges fostered by the presence of absence.

6 ways to get past the presence of absence and actually connect on video calls

1. at the beginning of each call, check In with every person

Dr. Richardson says that she always starts video meetings by having everyone rank their energy on a scale of one to five (one being the worst, five being the best). “Having that check-in allows the opportunity for you to feel their energy. If someone says ‘I’m a two,’ I’m like ‘Oh! I can feel that.’ So now I feel that energy, and I feel that connection that I normally would fill in during a real-life meeting,” she says.

On Zooms with friends, this is the moment to be vulnerable and share if you’ve been feeling lonely, out of touch, or—hey—even pretty happy. And, in turn, it’s a moment to listen to how your pals are doing so that you can most effectively support them.

2.  Circulate a meeting agenda beforehand

Again, Dr. Richardson says this is all about being mindful of people’s energy. If your co-workers know what part of the meeting they need to be fully present for, they can focus on that moment and relax in surrounding time. That way, the school-style stress of “when will I be called on?” doesn’t exist. “We’re not going to be able to really pay attention or engaged throughout that entire call because there are just way too many distractions. Being able to prep in advance for the Zoom meetings and knowing where we need to center our energy is so important,” says Dr. Richardson.

So it doesn’t make you a slacker if you need to emotionally check out during your company’s nitty-gritty financial-holdings presentation that you don’t feel directly pertains to you; it means that you’re aware of what’s best for your own mental health.

3. Make “unmuted moments” essential

If you’re muting your mic when you’re doing a big group catch-up with friends over the weekend, stop trying to be so polite! Dr. Richardson says that the background noise is part of the ambiance of the call, and it will make the whole interaction feel more real. If one friend is staying with their ‘rents right now, for instance, you might be able to enjoy some especially interesting goings on in the background, so do yourself a favor and tune in.

“If you’re trying to build community and you want to keep people engaged, have designated moments where everyone’s mute button is off.” —Richardson

Same goes with video calls for work: If you’ve ever found yourself in a video meeting that consisted of a couple of people on staff talking for 95 percent of the time, you know it doesn’t feel great. “If you’re trying to build community and you want to keep people engaged, have designated moments where everyone’s mute button is off. Just allow people to go off script, to talk, check in, and see how things are going,” she says. You can slot this time in on your meeting schedule (see tip two) as either a mid-Zoom break or a quick touch-base at the end.

4. USe zoom’s chat feature to…well, you know

During meetings that are larger and less-focused, Richardson says everyone should feel free to crash the AIM-reminiscent “chat” feature on Zoom and ask each other what’s up. “Enabling that chat is going to build a feeling of community and take away some of the rigidness of Zoom meetings,” says Richardson.

The same logic applies to your squad’s JackBox session. If you’re playing a very competitive game of Fibbage, drop into the chat feature to ask people to spill on how work is going and how they’re feeling more generally. Multitasking is A-okay in this situation.

5. make it super-clear that you see the other people

“Certain media have higher social presence [allowing a person to more effectively project themselves], like video, but we’re now understanding that it’s also important to be seen. Social presence goes both ways,” says psychologist Anita Blanchard, PhD. That means, while video conferencing will allow you to be seen, it’s just as important—in terms of creating effective connections—to also actively see others.

So next time you’re on a video chat, be fast and loose with the compliments you offer. Your friends will feel seen and appreciated, and that’s solid gold right now, Dr. Blanchard says.

6. Keep in mind that you’re still acclimating to video socializing—and it’s okay to feel the growing pains

Dr. Blanchard says that history of communication technologies can provide a little bit of solace at this very moment: “The email was invented at the end of the 1960s because the government and universities were sharing files with each other,” she says. “People started sending messages to each other instead of files, through that system.” So while email was invented for a professional purpose, it became a social one—and took decades to be a process the public at large relied upon.

The takeaway as it pertains to working and socializing via video calls while quarantining is that we’ll find our own ways to make Zoom feel social, personable, fun, and second nature—in time. Video chats may not feel normal yet, but we’re adaptable beings who have built social bridges before using different mediums. And we will again and again.

If you’re an introvert struggling with all the Zoom, we got you. And here’s how to look instantly more awake before your virtual meeting. 

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