Before the pandemic, a casual phone call was becoming a thing of the past. Most people didn’t routinely use video chat, either, even though the technology had been around for years. Those intimate modes of conversation were reserved for distant loved ones — or maybe something formal, like an out-of-state job interview.
But the coronavirus has changed the world overnight. Now, we’re all video chatting — often multiple times a day — and are welcoming colleagues, clients, doctors and acquaintances into our homes. Important life milestones are going virtual — there are Zoom birthday parties, Zoom funerals and Zoom weddings. Generally, the human connection video chat offers seems to provide comfort in these isolated times — if you’re like most people.
Embracing video chat hasn’t been easy for everyone. Our new virtual normal has left some people feeling more awkward than connected. According to Alison Papadakis, director of clinical psychological studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, much of this is rooted in the “friction” that video chat introduces to social situations. We’ve all probably witnessed a pixelated and frozen face of someone we know, listening intently to their garbled voice — thanks to a crappy internet connection. Technology pains aside, FaceTime is a far cry from face time.
Much of communication depends on nonverbal body language — mannerisms, gestures and postures that are largely absent or more difficult to interpret over video. Real-life interactions also generally don’t come with the same pressure to perform like on video chat. And when you’re in a virtual meeting, you’re more conscious of the fact that you’re being watched — something that can be triggering for the roughly 7 percent of the population with a social anxiety disorder.
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But even if you’re socially graceful, moments of silence that feel natural in person can feel downright weird when you’re staring into a screen. A 2014 study of phone conferencing delays that were as short as a second made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused. Yikes.
That said, video chat is probably not going anywhere anytime soon. Social interaction is a basic human need — and video chat allows us to work together and continue to move forward. But for those of us who are still feeling a little camera shy, Papadakis offered some insight to help understand what happens when social distancing meets social anxiety, and how to cope.
Q: What sorts of anxieties can video chat trigger?
A: The main one I see is social anxiety, also called social phobia. That is the anxiety that people feel in social situations, and it usually centers on being afraid that others will judge them negatively, which we call fear of negative evaluation. Most people feel some anxiety when meeting a group of new people, being observed by others or having to perform in front of others.
Some people have an intense version of this anxiety, which might indicate that they have social anxiety disorder, but it is more of a continuum that we all fall somewhere along. So, even if someone does not have the disorder, they can experience some of the same things, just at a lower level of intensity. Another thing to know about social anxiety is that, for some people, it happens only in certain situations (such as when they have to give a speech) but not in others.
Q: Who tends to find video chat difficult?
A: The people who are most likely to find communication over video chat difficult are those who have a lot of social anxiety in other situations. The cognitive model of social anxiety suggests that people who are socially anxious tend to pay more attention to themselves than to others when they are in social situations. In in-person social situations, they focus on things like making sure that they are not embarrassing themselves and what they are going to say next, rather than focusing on others’ appearances and listening to what other people are saying.
In support of this, research shows that people who have social anxiety cannot recall as many details of the situation (who was there, the color of the walls) as people who are not socially anxious. This causes them to see themselves more from an observer perspective (through the eyes of others) than a field perspective (through their own eyes), which leads to an intensification of their anxious response. The intensification is largely because they are focused on physiological signs of anxiety (a racing heart, sweaty palms, flushed face), which are embarrassing to them because they think others will notice and think poorly of them. They also worry that they may look strange or say or do something stupid, so they monitor themselves for any little indication that they did something wrong. Then, they find evidence of something wrong and get stuck thinking about how awful it was that it happened, when usually others did not notice it at all.
All that research is based on in-person interactions. This gets really interesting if you put it together with video chats, because usually people have a self-video in front of them, which probably causes them to take on even more of the observer perspective than they would in an in-person social situation. In other words, their own image in the video chat likely heightens how much they are paying attention to themselves and signs that they might be doing something embarrassing (like blushing). This effect is probably even bigger in a performance situation where they think they are being evaluated and are trying to impress others (if they have to give a presentation for work, talking to someone on a first virtual date, or doing a job interview).
There was an interesting study a few years ago that used eye-tracking technology and put participants in a social conversation situation in a video chat. They demonstrated that women who are socially anxious look at their self-video more than non-socially anxious women, especially during parts of the conversation where they felt scrutinized or criticized by their conversation partner. When the focus of the conversation was on the other person, they looked more at the other person’s video, compared to when they felt scrutinized. That particular study was only of women, so I would be cautious about saying that the findings are necessarily accurate for men, too. But one would expect they are because there are studies of both men and women demonstrating similar effects with mirrors instead of videos. There is also research that suggests the presence of a self-video in a video chat amplifies the number of socially anxious thoughts that people have versus when there is no self-video.
Q: Do the “rules” of face-to-face communication apply to video chat? How might the rules be different?
A: What I have observed is that most of the standard rules of face-to-face communication do apply, except there is a lot of friction in video chats that makes it harder for us to follow them. For example, even when the time delay in video chats is only very slight, the time delays make it hard to know when to stop talking and when to jump into a conversation. We have cultural norms that we all follow without even thinking about it most of the time. We know how long to wait after someone else has stopped talking to be sure that they are done speaking and that it is our turn to talk. I am seeing that the delay means the two conversation partners can get out of sync. One partner may pause to let the other person jump in, but the delay means that the second person does not start saying something by the time the first person expects them to. This can lead to both people trying to talk at the same time, and then they have to sort out who is going to keep talking. Usually, we defer to the first person who was talking. This seems to lead some people to ramble on, and it leads others to be hesitant to jump into the conversation the next time because they are not sure if the other person is done and it would seem rude to interrupt.
I think small issues like that can make video chats more awkward and more tiring because they require us to pay more attention and rely less on the implicit rules we learned when we were young. Those small issues are also probably magnified in the minds of people prone to social anxiety, who find a small “mistake” like that hugely embarrassing. I think that we will start to figure out new norms naturally, but it takes time.
Another issue I see is that it is harder to read people’s nonverbal communication over video chat because sometimes they seem small or far away in the picture. It is funny, though, because we expect to be able to read nonverbals on video — and, yet, our experiences are not aligning with our expectations, which might lead to anxiety and frustration.
Also, our eye gaze is off. If we are looking in the eyes of the other person’s video, we are not looking at the camera, so it does not appear to them that we are looking them in the eye. In person, not making eye contact can mean lot of things, such as “I’m not interested in what you are saying,” “I disagree,” “I think it is my turn to talk,” or “I’m embarrassed.” We have to sort between those possibilities and the possibility that it is just a camera placement issue. Without the additional nonverbal information that we would have in person, it can be confusing or lead to misunderstandings, which could be embarrassing to someone who tends to be socially anxious.
Q: Why did it take us so long to embrace video chat in our personal lives?
A: I think the friction of video chatting that I described turned people off, unless we were really motivated to talk with that person and that it was the only way to talk with them. For example, some of my in-laws live in Europe. If we are going to talk with them and they are going to see my kids, video chat is our best option. I think now we are embracing it more because it is our next best option to being in person, and in person is not an option now.
In times of insecurity, we turn to others to seek connection, to get a sense of normalcy, and to have our experiences validated by others. Virtual get-togethers with friends, especially old friends and people facing similar issues to me, like colleagues balancing working from home with parenting, have been so helpful for my mental health. Since we find those connections and sense of validation helpful, we are willing to put up with the friction.
Q: What recommendations do you have for people who might be experiencing difficulties transitioning to a world where video chat has become the new normal?
A: In general, we tell people who have anxiety not to avoid the thing that makes them anxious because it allows the anxiety to fester. However, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. If people want to connect with others but feel uncomfortable on a video chat, it is OK to triage and not focus on combating their social anxiety right now. Maybe look for another way to connect — maybe the phone or a socially distanced get-together like a car picnic.
However, there are times when some of us need to be on a video chat (such as for work). Especially for those prone to social anxiety, the best thing is to try to focus on the other person or people on the call — or, if it is a performance situation (like a job interview), focus on the task at hand. For a performance situation, I would also recommend practicing what you might say on your own — in front of a mirror or on a video chat where you are the only person. Then try practicing with a friend so that you can feel more comfortable with what you are going to say and the video chat format. Also, practicing with the technology that you are going to use ahead of time is helpful, because many people get embarrassed by technology not working smoothly, which can throw them off when they get to an actual presentation because they are still feeling the discomfort from the glitch occurring. Another thing to try is to record themselves and listen to it, especially with someone who is supportive and can help them see that the things they are worried others will see are probably not evident to others.
For social situations, try not to focus on your own image. Instead, try to focus on the other person’s image and what they are saying. There are complex therapy techniques to retrain yourself like metacognitive therapy’s attention training technique, but those are best done with a trained therapist. In either kind of situation, if you are feeling nervous and are concerned that others might notice, you could try attributing your signs of anxiety as signs of excitement instead. So, if you have to give a presentation, say something like, “I’m excited to share our presentation with you.” This not only gives others a different explanation for why you might be flushed, but it also helps you. We feel some of the same things in our bodies when we are anxious as when we are excited, and you can start to train yourself to see those as signs of excitement rather than anxiety. That can also help us to change our perception of the situation from anxiety-provoking to exciting. An analogy might be skydiving. If you can train yourself to think about it as an exciting adventure rather than a scary thing, you are more likely to take the leap, do it more adeptly, and have fun while doing it.
I also really appreciate it when people take time to remind everyone to try to be patient and kind to themselves and others. We are all doing our best under the most challenging of circumstances. Of course, our old maladaptive coping strategies are rearing their heads again. At the same time, as terrible as this crisis is, periods like this give us opportunities to find strength and resilience in ourselves, help and lean on each other, and grow in positive ways that we never imagined possible.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.