Experts explain why video calls are a special kind of hell for introverts.
We’re living in the age of Zoom.
Zoom meetings, happy hours, conferences, dates, even Easter dinners. With stay-at-home orders in effect for much of the world, almost all social interaction has moved online.
This may seem like a good thing for introverts. Online spaces are where we “quiet ones” typically thrive. And you don’t even have to leave your house to Zoom. You can do it from the comfort of your own bedroom, forgoing crowds, and wearing sweatpants if you like.
But video calls are not, as it seems, an introvert paradise.
Zoom fatigue is real, according to experts, no matter where you fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. But for introverts, Zoom (and Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Houseparty, and others) can be a special kind of hell. Here’s why.
Confirmed: Video Calls Are More Tiring Than Real Life
“Video calls can actually be more draining than in-person interactions,” Thea Orozco, author of the book, The Introvert’s Guide to the Workplace, tells me via email. One reason? On a video call, your brain has to work harder to interpret non-verbal cues like body language and tone of voice. Paying more attention means you burn more energy.
(This is also the reason talking hands-free on a cell phone impairs driving, but talking to someone in the car with you does not. Zoom calls basically mean everyone is “drunk driving” their way through the meeting.)
Plus, because most people just show their face, you miss important details. You don’t see them, for example, wringing their hands, crossing their arms, or twitching their feet impatiently. “Because we’re missing out on a lot of the emotional cues that happen in person, our brains can go into overdrive trying to compensate for this lack of information, leading to even more energy drain,” Orozco says.
Similarly, video calls create a strange type of dissonance. Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at INSEAD, tells the BBC that although video calls bring our minds together, our bodies still know they are separate from one another. “That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says.
There’s also the problem of silence. Anyone who’s ever done a video call knows the technology creates endless opportunities for awkward silence. In real-life conversations, Petriglieri says, those silences create a natural rhythm. On video calls, however, silence makes you worry that Zoom crashed or you lost your internet connection.
Online, silence can also create the wrong impression. A 2014 study looked at lag time on phone or conferencing systems and found that delays as short as 1.2 seconds made people see the responder as less friendly or focused.
Speaking of technology…
A video call can quickly start to feel like a bad episode of “Black Mirror” — one where you’re stuck watching your friends (or coworkers) on TV while simultaneously performing a show of your own. (No? Just me?) Once on screen, it can feel impossible to stop looking at your own face. (I suppose if it were “Black Mirror,” your friends would also be giving you a rating based on whether you’re likeable.) This performative aspect of Zoom is yet another mental energy suck.
Now, what happens when you take this already-draining situation and throw an introvert into it?
The Extra Challenges Introverts Face
Introverts are already more prone to social fatigue than extroverts (introvert hangover, anyone?). But fatigue is just one circle of Zoom hell. Video calls present certain additional challenges for us “quiet ones” that extroverts may not experience.
If you’re an introvert, you probably already know that you come up with your best ideas when you’ve had the chance to reflect (see: every time you think of a witty comeback a day late).
Video calls, most of them group activities, “don’t play into this introvert strength,” says Orozco. “Plus, because it’s much harder to understand when someone is done talking on a video call, an introvert who needs to pause and collect their thoughts as they talk may struggle with being frequently interrupted, adding to the frustration and overwhelm of group video calls.”
Now, Let’s Add a Pandemic
Maybe video calls under different circumstances would be less draining. We are in the midst of a deadly worldwide pandemic, after all, and it sucks. Our baseline energy levels are low; we’re awake at all hours of the night, having weird and vivid dreams, and simply feeling more tired than usual. It takes extra energy to stay vigilant — and alive — during a crisis.
That lack of energy goes double for introverts. “While the current pandemic may seem like an introvert’s paradise, it has led to many introverts being drained because they are in constant close quarters with extroverted family members,” Orozco says. “And many introverts have found that working from home has resulted in more meetings!”
That’s right. As much as introverts may loathe going into the office everyday, it may have actually saved them some could this meeting have been an email? moments. “Now many businesses are trying to make video calls serve the same purpose as offices,” Orozco says. “This can mean far more meetings for managers to ‘check in,’ plus meetings which are more for team-building than getting decisions made.”
Petriglieri blames the existential nature of the crisis. “The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues, that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together.”
This distress is not exclusive to introverts. “What I’m finding is, we’re all exhausted; it doesn’t matter whether they are introverts or extroverts,” Petriglieri says. “We are experiencing the same disruption of the familiar context during the pandemic.”
It doesn’t help that pre-pandemic most of us had separate spaces for the different aspects of our lives — work, school, friends, family — but now it’s all happening in one place. The theory of self-complexity suggests there are multiple aspects to a person’s sense of self, and a lot of those aspects depend on context. In other words, you’re a slightly different person at work, at home, with one friend group or another — and that variety is actually healthy. When these aspects are limited, we become more vulnerable to sadness and anxiety.
“We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis,” Petriglieri tells the BBC, “and our only space for interaction is a computer window.”
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How to Fight Zoom Fatigue
Video calls probably aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, even after stay-at-home orders end, remote work may become the norm for certain jobs. As Diane Mulcahy of Forbes recently wrote, “Once companies have the processes and tools in place, and the results of weeks, or even months, of remote working, it will be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.”
So what’s an introvert to do?
Bring up Zoom fatigue with your employer, Orozco suggests. “Many people are having to deal with ‘pandemic fatigue’ in addition to Zoom fatigue, and it’s very likely that your boss is experiencing some of those difficulties as well. When bringing this up with your employer, try to have a solution to this problem. Instead of video check-ins each morning, what about a shared document, like on Google Docs or Sharepoint, outlining that day’s most important tasks?”
And employers: For the love of alone time, PLEASE minimize the number of virtual meetings you hold. “Before they schedule anything, managers should determine the goals of the video call, and whether the same thing can be accomplished in a less time-intensive way, like through emails,” Orozco says.
When it comes to your friends and family, take a similar minimalistic approach. You don’t need to make up some B.S. reason to skip the group call; a polite but firm no will do. If you do want to explain, keep it brief and honest: “I’m just not up for a video call right now,” “I need some time to myself,” or even, “I’m trying to limit my screen time.”
Introvert, do you find video calls draining? How do you deal with them? Let me know in the comments below.
Thea Orozco is the author of the newly released book, The Introvert’s Guide to the Workplace: Concrete Strategies for Bosses and Employees to Thrive and Succeed. You can order it on Amazon here.
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