‘Zoom’ has become a shorthand way to describe this new ecosystem of virtual conferencing, and over the past few weeks, mentions of “Zoom fatigue” have popped up more and more on social media, and Google searches for the phrase have increased steadily since early March. What is it, exactly, that is so draining about interacting with a grid of faces on video chat? Regular users and experts in communication and psychology point to a number of factors: the body language and other cues that we expect when looking at another person’s face, the way we monitor our own appearance mirrored back to us, the stimulation of staring into faces at close range on a screen, or the inability to take a break, move, or change our surroundings.
Video calling requires more focus than does a face-to-face interaction. Video chats require us to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, body language, and the tone and pitch of voice. Paying more attention to these factors consumes a significant amount of energy. On a video call, because we are all in different places, if we turn to look out the window, we worry it might appear as if we’re not paying attention. Not to mention, most of us are also staring at a small window of ourselves, making us hyper-aware of every expression and how it might be interpreted. Without the visual breaks we need to refocus, our brains grow tired.
In part, it’s because we are forced to focus more intently on conversations in order to absorb information. Think of it this way: when you are sitting in a conference room, you can rely on whispered side exchanges to catch you up if you get distracted or answer quick, clarifying questions. During a video call, however, it’s impossible to do this unless you use the private chat feature or awkwardly try to find a moment to unmute and ask a colleague to repeat themselves.
We’re also continuously finding new courteous ways to ask our loved ones not to disturb us or tuning them out as they crawl across the floor to grab their phone off the table. This is especially challenging for those with small children and who don’t have a private space in which to work.
The whole experience of a video conference feels like a prolonged bout of directly staring at other people staring back at us. That’s draining. Which is why it’s not what actually happens when we meet in person, where we only occasionally look right at one another or make prolonged eye contact. Zoom, or other virtual conferencing platforms, is wearing a lot of us down and as this period of enforced online work and socializing drags on, we’re all going to have to learn how to conserve our physical and psychological energy better.