Zoom & Telework make me sad?

We spend the day in on-line meetings and the evenings in on-line meetups. Does that make us feel connected with each other?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am spending a lot of time with my co-workers on Zoom and other video platforms; then I do online yoga in the evenings. When I am working I find that I am really distracted by the backdrops and feel like I am peering into people’s personal lives. Do I say something? When I do yoga, I feel alone and I miss the studio. At the end of the day I am really tired even though I have not gone out ? Is it like this for others during the quarantine? Valerie, Sausalito

Dear Valerie: These are indeed unusual times and I hope that you have a support network of friends and family. It’s good to reach out to others. They are probably feeling just like you.

We are all learning new communications etiquette. When we meet in person, say for a business meeting, all parties process the visual cues in micro-seconds… that’s probably why in-person meetings start off slowly with small talk. When you get invited to the boss’s office for the first time or have a job interview with a higher-up, subconsciously process data about this new space. You observe the decorations, diplomas and favorite photos, and spatial layout, as you also (try to) maintain the thread of conversation.

Kinesics

So, your question about backgrounds and micro-cues is relevant. Ray Birdwhistell, whom I studied with at Penn, proposed that kinesics, the study of human body motion, is culturally specific, and deeply invisible. There is a maxim frequently attributed to him that 30 to 40 percent of communications is verbal and 60 to 70 percent is paralinguistic (body language). I honestly never heard him say this. But, he did believe that all movement conveyed meaning. He would have a heyday today processing all the gestures, twitches, and blinks on telework channels.

Perhaps that is what makes Zoom-like video so tiring. We are trying to follow the the cues, but can’t quite grasp the subtlety: the speaker’s lips, eyebrows raise and lower, eye squint, flick of the hair: kinesics we need to interpret and respond to if we verbally jump in or back off. 

Connection Channels !!

Meanwhile, there is a third channel that Birdwhistell could not anticipate. We also have to process imperfect technology: things like a fuzzy connection, asynchronous dialogue, and poor background lighting. While TV watching brings expectations for professional media, this standard does not happen from home. I know this linked study was done in 2017 to support a video compression pitch…… but it suggests that we use subconscious reactions to judge video.

https://nscreenmedia.com/poor-quality-video-streaming-ruin-brand/


Does lower quality streaming decrease happiness and focus, and increase negative emotions? And, does better streaming make us happier, as the image suggests? Here is a PhD dissertation ready to be written!

Pink Kitty Backgrounds

During the past week, I found that simplicity works… yoga studios that stream a class with a blank wall and a live instructor keep my focus. That said, instructors who would normally be effective in-person do not necessarily translate well or telegenically into video. 

And, like you I find that meetings or classes with teleworkers can be jarring. Instead of focusing on the conversation, my attention wanders to the pink-kitty pillows and lumberjack shirts (are they really wearing pants?) Even when the background is a non-descriptive doorframe or window, our minds leap to fill in the pattern of the full room.

There’s a reason that business people have discovered backdrops, just like professionals on TV news! So, for practical tips, see this helpful Wall St. Journal article.

Video UNHappy Hours…

Perhaps the ultimate stress is “video happy hour.” It tends to be less happy that it sounds because of the intense time we stare at the screen without being able to look away and wander out. If we were sitting at a bar stool ‘IRL’ we might be nominally engaged with our phone, with the bartender and guests, and reacting, in a subtle way to sounds and motion throughout the establishment.

When we sit at home, it is all so new, and we are learning thee new video protocols together. As the technology matures, and we mature with it, we will, collectively, become more adept at reading on-line kinesics, wandering on and off the screen both mentally and physically, and settling into other peoples’ personal spaces. 

Teletopia or Infodemic?

This is an abstract image: first a word bubble about tech on the left and a picture of a teletubby doll on the right. It is titled teletopia 1 and teletopia 2/

Dear Ms. Smartphone: The weekly report for my phone shows that I spent less time this week using it- about 1 hour less. Why am I using my phone less during the quarantine, and should I worry that I am not connecting enough with what is going on outside? Hugh, Woodside

Dear Hugh: It’s actually great that you use a screen report and protect your time. There is little doubt that TELETOPIA will triumph when the pandemic ends. We will all be spending a lot more time on our devices, whether for telemedicine, teleshopping, telework or more….and 5G networks will diffuse rapidly. Perhaps you, and others, are experiencing the final days of simplicity and minimalism before a near-future upheaval. I don’t mean to imply that the future is dystopic. It will just be different.

Less is More

But, back to present and the fact that you are using your phone less in these troubled times. This can be positive because continual monitoring of the news and breaking headlines can  make you feel helpless and fearful. It’s good to know what is going on out there, but it is not good to internalize it, easy to do when we spend run-away time on media.

POTS (Plain Old Phone Service)

You might want to pick up your phone more, but in an old-fashioned way. Use it as a telephone, to make and receive voice calls. POTS was the term we used to use at the phone company. I have personally found over the past week that the best ‘comfort-food for the soul’ has been to pick up the phone and call a friend or relative, or get their incoming call. It is much better than a text. I am not sure if I would feel as excited by a video- call on Zoom or Skype; that might feel too much like work.   

Third, let’s talk about the device itself. There have a proliferation of posts about people cleaning up their homes and organizing closets and drawers. Marie Kondo is back in the news. That is a reminder that we should do a parallel  ‘wipe down- swipe down’ of the info-detritus cluttering up our electronic lives. Consider cleaning out the photos, files and the apps that no longer ‘spark joy.’ For example, if you are like most people and only used the download for the meditation app, the home gym, or free delivery service once send the app to the trash-bin (and also do a full delete under ‘Settings’). Going forward, you want to be mindful of what your device links to and organize your free time around really useful apps. 

Clean Out Deadwood…Get Ready!

So, enjoy this break, clear out the deadwood, and get ready for the upcoming TELETOPIA.  John Eger, a lawyer and prof, says that the term teletopia was coined by Japanese Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication around 1980, to describe a future broadband communications infrastructure. You are holding it in your hands!

Corona Virus, Smartphone Transmit ?

Will touching an infected user’s smartphone help spread the Corona Virus?

Photo serves as metaphor: a doll with say eyes has a a facemask partially covering her visage. This raises a question about the hygiene and safety of using the touchscreen on our phones.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: With the Covic-19 virus spreading, should I be worried if someone shares a smartphone with me? I was looking at some pictures my friends had on their phones,  and I had to touch their screens to scroll. Meanwhile, it seems like my kids are always passing their phones back and forth to look at YouTube.  And, how about those TV screens on airplanes?  Lance, San Francisco.

Dear Lance:  I am a doctor of social science, not a medical doctor, so I cannot fully give you the advice you seek. But, on the social science side of things, some years ago Stephen King wrote a thriller called ‘Cell.’ Phones were at the heart of the pandemic. It was the signal, not germs, that spread the illness.

But, what is spreading COVIC-19? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) site says it might spread by touching the surface of an object that has the virus on it and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes….but they don’t think that’s the main way. Still, it’s good practice to be careful if you have a shared phone that passes among people you do not know well. This is not uncommon among groups of itinerants, the homeless, and poor. They are more likely to share a common phone and might be at a higher health risk to begin with.

Assuming you have a personal phone, you will likely touch it up to 2000 times a day. Good hygiene, in any season, says keep your phone out of the bathroom. Also, make it a regular habit to wipe down the screen with a soft cloth (not soap and water). A Web-MD story says ultra-violet light might be a way to eliminate airborne flu viruses, but other experts, like a clinical professor of pathology, says these effects are superficial.

Time-tested sage advice from the CDC is to routinely wash your hands with a 60% + alcohol based cleaner, or with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

That said, transmission is not only about germs.  This gets us closer to social science and to the pandemonium Stephen King predicted. Speed of information and fragmented, half-truths can also broadcast fear and panic.