The real reason it makes me squirm.
There’s a lot of things to hate about Zoom and other video calling services (plenty of good things too, sure, but I’m not going to waste your time stating the obvious to sound nicey-nice). For many of us, COVID-19 has resulted in video calls for virtual social hangouts, doctor visits, teacher instruction, and, of course, our jobs.
Yes, it’s a privilege to be able to work remotely, but the fact that “it could be worse” doesn’t excuse current circumstances from critique.
Lots of Little Reasons, and One Big One
People have speculated about why so many of us hate video calls. There’s the typical explanations about how too much screen time strains our eyes, makes it harder for us to fall asleep, and keeps us sedentary. There’s also the scientific fact that everyone hates how they look on video calls. For me, there’s the bonus self-imposed shame of having literally no nice background. Plus, some people just don’t want their coworkers ‘inside’ their homes, and they resent the blurring of that boundary.
But the usual explanations weren’t quite scratching my itch of why the video calls made me feel so miserable, anxious, and insecure. Then it hit me. It had to do with the psychology of being seen.
The Psychological Issue
Maybe you feel it, too. An impending video call stirs up seemingly out-of-proportion bad feelings. It’s not just the eye-strain. It’s not just the normal hellish awfulness of meetings. It’s not just the lack of donuts.
It’s that I don’t like being looked at. And Zoom lets people look at us without the visual cues we normally receive to know we are being looked at. So, we are frozen in that vague feeling of being watched but have no recourse to say:
Being seen is a weirdly primal issue. It makes me think about how prey feel when they sense they are being watched by predators. It also makes me think about how being seen and either accepted or rejected by the social group is wired into our brains as “life or death,” because for most of human history, rejection by the group did, in fact, equal death.
I can appreciate that seeing each other is important as a societal function, but the problem with Zoom is that it leaves me exposed to being seen, while it removes my ability to know who is looking at me.
Zoom magnifies this issue because it leaves me vulnerable to being looked it without my knowledge, while it happens right in front of my face. In an in-person meeting, people don’t stare at each other. They tend to look at the speaker, look at their notes, stare off into the distance. In real life, it would be bizarre and hostile to stare at another meeting member. But this can totally happen on Zoom.
The thing is, even if no one is actually watching my every move, the possibility that they could be watching me 1) makes me feel obligated to make sure my face looks “pleasant and attentive” (exhausting!), and 2) makes me feel violated, sort of like that feeling you get when, in a public place, you realize some strange man is staring at you inappropriately. [Side note: everyone I’ve been on Zoom with would qualify as Not a Strange, Leering Man. So this is about my brain’s emotional response, not about what the other Zoom members are actually doing.]
Why is it so excessively uncomfortable for some of us to be looked at? That’s an article for another day. For now, it’s been helpful to be able to understand what it is about Zoom that makes me squirm. And now I can figure out what to do about it . . .
Give Yourself Permission
Since this realization, I’ve given myself permission to turn off the video function. This has helped immensely! Using voice only has caused zero problems. The anxiety and insecurity is relieved, and when it comes to the remaining feelings of annoyance, I can roll my eyes in peace and privacy.
Which is something I couldn’t have done before. Maybe Zoom isn’t so bad after all.