BY PAM RUTLEDGE, PHD
Doctoral faculty, Media Psychology
November 20, 2020

Zoom uses a lot cognitive energy because it violates so many social norms.

Zoom is so prevalent that “Zoom” is now synonymous with video conferencing. The use of Zoom and other digital communications tools has skyrocketed given the number of people working and living in relative isolation due to COVID precautions and lockdowns. So many of us are Zooming (yes, it’s now a verb, too) that we are experiencing a new form of burnout: Zoom fatigue. Let’s face it. Zooming can be exhausting—and for good reasons.

tired woman is working on her laptop and sitting at home at the wooden table

The numbers are impressive from a business perspective, but a bit frightening from a psychological one. By June 2020, Zoom’s subscriptions had increased by 350% over the previous year. The number of people showing up in meetings went from 10 million to over 300 million during the same period. (That’s daily.) While meeting participants is not the same thing as unique subscribers, it’s telling how many Zoom meetings we all attend.  

It’s now well into fall and we have many, many Zoom meetings under our belts and on our calendars. There are days when the number of Zoom meetings I attend makes me feel like I’m a major contributor to the total number of daily-meeting-participants number. Don’t get me wrong. As an introvert, there’s a lot I appreciate about working remotely. However, for introverts and extroverts alike, Zoom can be exhausting, resulting in the Zoom Fatigue epidemic to go along with COVID. 

Zoom is exhausting for several reasons, not the least of which is that we have been forced to adapt nearly instantaneously, moving a good portion of our professional, social, and personal lives online. Whatever anxiety going virtual adds, the raging pandemic across the country sets the stress bar pretty high at the outset.

Zoom is kind of like traveling in a foreign country. Navigating Zoom-effective and appropriate behaviors takes a lot of cognitive energy because it violates many of our social norms. Zoom gives new meaning to being face-to-face. It is literally face-to-face and even when you look down, you know you’re still available for scrutiny. After all, you can see yourself along with everyone else, too. 

We may not have the same visual and spatial cues as we would in person, but our brain jumps right in, sending messages to the rest of the body as if we were. Virtual proximity signals physical proximity to our prehistoric brain and violates our social norms about personal space and the interpersonal implications of distance. This reaction can cause physical discomfort unless we override our initial reactions. Certain social behaviors, like continued eye gaze, are a function of intimacy and work great over a candlelight dinner but are a violation of personal space between everyone else.  

While personal space varies by culture, it exists among us all. Amanda Erickson’s 2017 article in The Washington Post on the cultural variations of personal space has a very cool chart summarizing what feels right in each culture. Our preferences for closeness are challenged because we’re all reconciling our offline standards to fit in this new place we live called Zoom.  

In the U.S., we avert our eyes when we have to stand too close to another person, such as in a crowd or an elevator. Behaviors that violate social norms and require adaption are tiring. We all have to adjust, adapt, move our chairs, raise our monitors, silence the dog, and change out of pajamas to accommodate socially-appropriate Zoom standards. And that’s not even getting into the best practice of what makes you look better.

Non-verbal cues and has lags, overlaps, echoes, and freezes that make it difficult to know when to speak. Unlike face-to-face, only one person can speak at a time on Zoom. The active voice overrides other voices leading to frequent and mostly inadvertent times when we interrupt someone. Interrupting is bad manners — especially when it’s boss. Interrupting is a behavioral violation that can signal multiple social messages, from a lack of self-regulation to disrespect and the disregard of a power disparity. 

Gallery view can increase sensitivities in some organizations, disrupting physical hierarchies like who gets to sit at the head of the table. It can trigger heightened awareness and discomfort as other behaviors are used to reestablish order. It makes some people louder to show dominance and some more reticent for fear of being misinterpreted.

Zoom requires that you schedule meetings, whether a social gathering or for work, because you can’t meet without a meeting number and, for those who have concerns about interlopers, a password. In the “old days,” social events rarely involved people statically sitting and staring at each other; the experience is a bit stilted even if they are holding Vodka Quarantinis. There is no casual dropping in. The burden of scheduling and timing and the frequent use of Zoom for meetings means that meeting norms start to leak over into social ones. Personal meetings are scheduled on the hour or half-hour, people rarely drift in beyond a few minutes and seem to last for an hour, placing a bizarre and unintentional kind of social pressure on those who have to “leave early.”

We are humans and humans are social animals, making self-representation important. So once you learn to unmute so you can talk, get the background noises to stop (will those not talking please mute your microphones?), and figure out how to share your screen, you’re ready to move on to worrying about how you look while Zooming.

Don’t worry. There is a growing number of self-representation gurus, articles, and tools to make you look better on video such as how to light your face, position your camera (don’t lean over your laptop), and create your real or virtual background. Virtual backgrounds are lots of fun if you don’t mind the borders around your head pixelating when you move. There’s even a control within Zoom settings to improve your appearance, but don’t get too excited. It doesn’t help that much. Aside from what effort we exert for our personal preparation, it also takes a lot of energy to avoid being preoccupied when we’re staring at our own faces. 

Personally, as we Zoom more and more, I wonder how much we will read into our cameras being turned on or off. Do these signal a level of participation and commitment? No one is stupid; we all know that turning off your camera means you can multi-task or fill your coffee cup. Maybe a camera off will just become the universal sign for “enough already.”

Now that we’re exhausted thinking about how tiring Zoom is, let’s talk a few adjustments if not solutions. First, acknowledge all the things that make Zoom tiring—it’s not just you. Introverts may feel the strain more than extroverts, but it gets to us all. For some reason, we are terrible at setting boundaries in the digital space, recognizing that boundaries are necessary for self-care. Healthy Zoom use means treating yourself with compassion and patience.

  • Know you’re normal.
  • Set time limits on meetings. Try the 50 minutes hour popular with many clinicians. 
  • Stop meetings early if there no point in going on.
  • Schedule downtime. 
  • Take breaks. Breath. Move.
  • Get a Bluetooth headset so you can move around a bit.
  • Don’t hesitate to turn off your camera.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Pamela Rutledge, PhD, MBA, is Media Psychology doctoral faculty in the School of Psychology at Fielding Graduate University. Dr. Rutledge is also the Director of the Media Psychology Research Center located in Southern California. She teaches and consults on a variety of media projects dealing with audience narratives and engagement, data strategy and communicating brand meaning through storytelling.

 

References:

Erickson, A. (2017, April 24). What ‘personal space’ looks like around the world. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/04/24/how-close-is-too-close-depends-on-where-you-live/