I set up the kettle, but lose interest long before the water has boiled. I’m secretly ashamed that I like the process of making tea (and imagining myself the kind of person who is a tea connoisseur) than actually drinking tea. Lately, I have come up with the additional hypothesis that I like the smell of tea more than the taste of tea. I put in more honey or sugar than seems reasonable and I’m too shy to do so at someone else’s house, where I’ll invariably put in an embarrassing amount only to not drink the tea, anyway. I’ll waste my own tea bags, but I draw the line at wasting yours.
Since I’ve started working from home, I go through this ritual a few times per day. Always a few minutes before a video call. I think to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice to have some tea?” (Or perhaps my ego is whispering, “wouldn’t it be nice to have a prop in your upcoming film?”). It’s 2 minutes before the hour and I start the tea kettle, only to forget about the charade when I rush back to my desk and open the calendar link to launch the meeting.
Months ago, long before COVID-19 had made its gruesome appearance in China, I bought an external webcam purely out of vanity. My personal laptop has a “nosecam” (webcam on the bottom of the screen rather than the top, a universally unflattering angle) and I got tired of precariously balancing the computer on a pile of cookbooks and dictionaries to achieve a more “becoming” portrait. The webcam serves my laziness, too… I don’t have to tire my poor, spaghetti-arms by holding my phone out for FaceTime calls with family. To round out my laudable qualities of vanity and laziness, the webcam boasts a wide angle view behind me, replete with tasteful quilts, sun-filled windows, and houseplants that I have never so much as lifted a finger to tend. I like that my camera view isn’t a floating head anymore. It’s my face and shoulders with a stylish, bohemian background. In many ways, this is my alter-ego; the person I wish I was.
Tea or no tea, my Zoom persona is chic. She’s also dainty, brazen, and well-organized. When she needs to sneeze or stretch, she simply turns off her camera. It’s as if she’s never had an uncouth bodily function! Moreover, no parsley in her teeth! She has a delightfully sarcastic sense of humor, because she can “read the room” and share quipy tidbits in the chat without interrupting or (hopefully) offending anyone. If she references an unconventional resource, she can easily “pop the link in the chat” and just like that, appear as if she had curated an extensive bibliography prior to convening the triumvirate.
“May I share my screen?” I implore my Zoommates. I ready myself to receive miraculous tech support or dazzle my audience with a demonstration of new features. I quickly hide my bookmarks bar, minimize my browser tabs, snooze my push notifications, and display only the subject at hand. I’ve learned how to dull the distractions so that we can work efficiently but I don’t hold myself to the same standard when I’m not on camera. The unintended consequence is an overly-manicured perception of my apartment and my workstation. The dishes, Facebook tabs, and overdue tasks are invisible – to both of us. For the duration of the video meeting, we are emancipated from such quotidian concerns and mutually expected to show up for the present moment. Anything less would be considered rude.
By now, you might be thinking that videocalls are a terrain of saccharine branding, vanity, and insecurity like most online “spaces” that we encounter; and my participation in this economy of perfectionism only makes the problem more acute. I think that’s a fair accusation and a legitimate risk. However, let me persuade you that you may have come to the wrong conclusion.
Despite the intentional and subconscious choices that I am making to “curate” my Zoom persona, you might be surprised to hear that I experience video meetings as a beacon of authenticity! I enjoy “sharing screens” with my friends and colleagues, (pop up notifications, browser tabs and all). In my line of work, sharing screens is a tool we use to be able to dramatize our mistakes (or the shortcomings of the technology). It introduces a level of vulnerability that would be difficult to replicate in person without craning over someone’s shoulder or shuffling between logins on a shared machine. “Here let me show you!” is a welcome refrain. “I spun up an example in another window,” … music to my ears. Speaking of vulnerability, bring on the babies and cats on camera!
I’ve noticed a norm of “getting down to business” quickly in a Zoom meeting. Less time waiting for Sandra to straggle in from the bathroom or Margot to get her coffee. (Is there a larger biological cost that people with back to back Zoom never pee?) Of course, these petty inconveniences are par for the course when dealing with humans and some readers might miss them. But not me. I’ve noticed that Zoom meetings are also more likely to end on time. Lingering for 10 more minutes is the norm in offices, but it’s not the norm online. Many people have to get on their next call. I want to be clear that I’m not making an argument here purely against small talk. I like to shoot the breeze as much as the next person! Nor is efficiency my primary objective. The reason why I bring up the “starting and ending” on time situation is that I appreciate the predictability and shared expectations of this norm. The awkwardness and anxiety of waiting for a meeting to start is significantly diminished. Running late? Just send an email. We’re all on our computers anyway and we can use that time to get other stuff done. The casual banter that happens during in-person meetings is often re-located to the chat, where more people can participate in a transparent and accessible format.
Speaking of the chat, I think it deserves its own paragraph. I’ve learned over the years that folks of Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicity like to interrupt each other so much that linguists have given it the name “collaborative overlapping.” The widely-held “rule” among middle class social justice groups of one person speaking at a time (“One Diva, One Mic!”) might seem polite on the surface, but in my experience, it can also stifle organic enthusiasm or sharp disagreement. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve agreed to the premise as a groundrule in grassroots meetings, and then bit my tongue when I have an idea or a reaction that otherwise, I would find a way to share. I’m a frequent interrupter (really trying to get a handle on it though!) and interuptee (usually by men) so I see both sides of the equation. (Yes, I even interrupt myself in my writing with these parenthetical asides!) The great thing about Zoom is that we can casually have two or more conversations at the same time without (in my opinion) sacrificing politeness. I feel more authentic when I can type in the chat “me too!” or “one thing we need to take into consideration is…” without demanding the floor. I’m fully engaged. This is awesome!
For all kvetching I hear about Zoom meetings, what I don’t hear much is extolling the sheer miracle of seeing our interlocutors from leagues away. In the past, meetings would just exclude so-and-so if they were out of town, or be postponed, rendering guests either completely disposable or overly influential. Not anymore! In many ways, Zoom levels the playing field, while making significant progress with respect to accessibility. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen groups of people with seemingly incompatible accessibility needs, who otherwise would be unable to collaborate in an in-person format, be able to seemingly seamlessly make it work in virtual sessions, where each person can adjust the audiovisual elements and join the meeting from a place that is most comfortable for them. Let’s not forget that disability justice activists have been calling for this for years. The impossible is becoming possible – and arguably, it always was. I’m in awe of how so many are rising to the occasion, listening, learning, and adapting to this new way of being together.
To take all of this one step further, to me, a video call is not just a backup plan for failed in-person meetings and pandemics. It’s a format that has its own merits and detractors, it’s own culture and expectations, and a cohort of people for whom it’s part of their routine. BEFORE the pandemic hit, I regularly spent 3-10 hours per week on video calls, which is how I’ve picked up all of these habits. I have dear friends and trusted colleagues with whom I pretty much only communicate over video calls.
It’s ok if after the pandemic subsides (G-d willing!) and we meet our “new normal,” you never set… face… into a Zoom/Skype/FaceTime/WebEx/UberConference meeting ever again. That’s your prerogative. As for me? I’m going to keep going with my Zoom friends, Zoom meetings, and “virtual coffee.” I may pass on Zoom birthday parties… but I won’t rule it out for out of town friends and family. And now my personal challenge for the coming week – if one of the things that I like so much about Zoom is blurred boundaries and shared vulnerability, perhaps I can loosen my own commitment to perfectionism and let more of real life into the frame.