Ahoy on the Zoom Call

Whenever a new communications technology gets invented, it takes a while for the social rules – all the things you’re supposed to do, or not do with the technology – to catch up.

When phones first came along, people didn’t say “hello” to start the call. In fact, Alexander Graham Bell suggested using the word “ahoy” as a greeting. In the 1920s, people in Britain were advised to skip the greeting to save time. 

I remember when email was first becoming a big deal back in the 1980s. In university I sent an email to a fellow student in Holland, and actually sat and watched my computer for an answer to come back. That seems silly now, of course. 

In other words, whenever a new communications technology gets invented, it takes a while for the social rules – all the things you’re supposed to do, or not do with the technology – to catch up. 

And now there’s video conferencing. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, people who have never used video conferencing before are using the technology non-stop. But not everyone is using it well, and some of the social rules around conferencing are still being ironed out. And it’s not just little things like dirty plates or pets in the background of a company conference call. 

Take, for example, the woman who went to the bathroom during a call. Or the professor who left a tab open on her shared screen that said “divorce.” Or the boss who went viral after she turned herself into a potato. Or the TV reporter who didn’t realize her husband was taking a shower in the background. 

Clearly, the rules are still being written. Businesses in particular need to figure out the best way to use video conferencing – and fast – because as the crisis drags on, the chance of failure and going viral for the wrong reasons rises. 

But maybe the biggest reason we’re not using the technology well has to do with social isolation. When the pandemic first hit, people were starved for human interaction. Video conferencing allowed you to see people face-to-face, and to feel like you were getting a little bit of normalcy back in your day. 

Off script
The problem is that video conferencing isn’t normal. Not even a little bit. After all, in a video conference, you typically only see a person’s head and shoulders – which is like being a foot apart in the real world. Since when are we close enough to colleagues and acquaintances to have that kind of intimate interaction? Plus you have to see your own face, staring back at yourself, with your pandemic hairdo and three days of stubble, usually from a low angle. 

Perhaps the problem with video conferencing is that it’s too close, too personal, and therefore strange to us. That may be why video conference calls are almost always too long. Unlike phone calls – which have a predictable script to them – there are no social rules or scripts for these very intimate, face-to-face meetings. I know that I’ve started sitting further away from the camera, for a start.

People are starting to describe being burned out by too many video meetings. Which is ironic because a tool that was supposed to improve productivity and bring people closer together is fast becoming tiresome and intrusive. Even attending “virtual” church feels like a chore – though I have to say my pastor is doing a great job under the circumstances. 

Strangely, I am finding that – even though I am stressed and burned out and anxious – it’s actually relaxing to pick up the phone and call someone. It feels comfortable and efficient. It feels safe and predictable. Which is weird because I used to hate phone calls. 

Maybe the lesson here is that making a human connection is never about using the newest and the latest tool, it is about finding the best tool. Or at the very least, waiting until some of the kinks are ironed out of the new technology. 

Who knows. Maybe it’s time we all started our Zoom calls with “Ahoy.”

  • Lloyd Rang works in communications and is a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

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