Why Are Video Calls Awkward (Like *so* Awkward) When IRL Hangouts Wouldn’t Be?

Photo: Getty Images/JGalione
The first pause in conversation during a Zoom call of any sort, for any number of people comes after the self-appointed host asks the dreaded question: "How is everyone doing?" The others in the digital gathering muster half-smiles, half-grimaces to the camera, answering with an unspoken, "Dead inside, how do you think?" The singular group conversation unfolds from there as a bumpy road of absolute cacophony with intermittent stop signs of uncomfortable quiet. Real-life hang outs weren't this messy, right? I mean, I can't remember so clearly at this point, but I swear they were way smoother sailing. So then, why are video calls awkward and full of weird pauses in conversation?

My hot take is that group calls on Zoom or any other platform are the new group dinner. That is, an unbearable swath of time that's mostly consumed in monologue form by whomever is the designated center of attention, whether that's the happy hour host who organized the thing, the manager who called the meeting, or the virtual birthday princess. It's why I don't hate Zoom gatherings, specifically; I hate all gatherings that feel mandated, leave little room for one-on-one conversations, and have you locked in for a certain amount of time. Not to be dramatic or anything.

But, again, that's just my hot (negative) take. For a more expert-informed point of view as to why video calls are awkward and a minefield of strange silences, even among the closest of friends and family, keep reading. A psychologist is here with four compelling factors.

4 reasons your video calls are awkward, according to a psychologist.

1. We miss essential body-language cues

Most of communication in nonverbal, which is perhaps part of why we insist on seeing people's faces after a long span of being phone-call-phobic. Still though, there's a lot we miss when people try to talk at once.

"When we are talking with each other in person, we pick up a variety of subtle cues that are often not perceptible via video." —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD

"Communication in real life is vastly different from video communication," says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear. "When we are talking with each other in person, we pick up a variety of subtle cues that are often not perceptible via video. Minor adjustments in posture, soft sighs, minute changes in eye contact, and other subtle shifts are often imperceptible or missed during video meetings. The subtle indicators naturally give us clues as to a person’s level of interest, desire to speak, or emotional state."

Digital gatherings can drag on if you don't notice that four out of nine people are dozing off thanks to extreme boredom, or if you keep interrupting each other because you miss a cue indicating someone is about to speak. Then you get a lot of "I think—" "No I'm sorry—" "You go—" "No you go—." And then comes the—you guessed it—awkward silence.

2. The presence of absence makes every interaction feel disconnected

No matter how cozy-lazy your dress code is these days, nobody feels laid-back and comfortable in a virtual gathering. Now, thanks to Google Calendar arranging your social Zooms just as it does for your professional Zooms, everything is subject to a rigid sign-on time, passcode, and blank stare at a screen to people you can't touch and don't feel at ease around, no matter your relationship. The concept of the presence of absence explains that disconnect we feel during technological gatherings: it's close to the real thing, but it's not the real thing. And that can also create jarring silences.

"As convenient and sometimes necessary as video sessions are, they can feel very artificial and lacking in personal connection," says Dr. Manly.

3. We're likely to get distracted by things that don't happen in IRL hangouts

Just because people aren't talking on the video chat doesn't mean people aren't talking. If there's a lull in conversation, some people might be subtly checking their texts and attending to their own (psychologically unsatisfying) social interactions. I've never done this because every Zoom gathering I have is so fascinating, full of thrilling tangents that I've lovingly committed to memory. But you know. Some people.

"Video meetings also offer a host of distractions that are not present in face-to-face meetings, such as technology blips, seeing the details in various attendees' background, which is often their personal home, and even one’s own image on the screen," says Dr. Manly.

4. People don't feel like they can be as open

Dr. Manly shares that from her own experiences with Zoom, she's noted an obvious decrease in personal connection and willingness to share, and that makes sense. After all, you're not able to break away from the group and bond with one person or another. Likewise, think of the how whenever someone speaks, it puts the spotlight on whatever they're saying.

This creates two internal conflicts: 1. Is what you're saying important enough to take center stage? And 2. Is what you're saying something you want to say to the whole group?

And while you're pondering those questions you wouldn't bother yourself with if it were an in-person meeting or a happy hour where you could mingle as you please, everyone else on your video call is left to contend with an awkward silence.

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