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.


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.


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. 

Do Smartphones Cause Panic?

Do social media & smartphones broadcast the coronavirus pandemic

The text spells out the word Infodemic in large bold letters.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am working at home this week and curious if my smartphone is part of the panic. From home my co-workers communicate over Slack and email. But I see them on social media more often too. Should I continue to use emails or just ‘slack’ off’ ?! Or, is something else going on? Jamie, San Francisco

Dear Jamie: Since you are at home, you might try a cross-word puzzle or Scrabble, and the key word is InfodemicInfodemic, nine letters down or across, is coined by political scientist, thought-leader and professor David Rothkog. In an opinion piece during the SARS epidemic in 2003 he observes,a few facts, mixed with fear, speculation, and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economics, politics and even security in way that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities.

In a nutshell, the word “infodemic” is a metaphor for an over- adundance of information- some accurate, some not- that has the capacity to spread virally. 

Media Environments

It is not the first time this has happened. But back in the time of the SARS epidemic we barely had smartphones, and we used them in different ways. Our national habit of consuming media was about to change, but still tipped towards television. In 2020 we have shifted time spent on media and are collectively immersed “in” social media. Social media is unruly, a wild-wild West, with little editorial control. 

Publically, we know little about the reliability and veracity of individual messages, but individually we are prone to respond quickly and emotionally. The net effect is to augment and spread information which is not fully corroborated. The impact is not always negative: sometimes it accerates ‘facts’ that needs to bubble up.

Going Viral?

But, back to David Rothkog’s nine letter word: He viewed strong similarities between the way a disease spreads through a population and the way an idea ‘goes viral’ on the Net. Here I re-quote Rothkopf from a Wall St Journal column by Ben Zimmer, the infodemic impacted more people that the underlying epidemic that triggered it.”

So here is the concern:  if you and your colleagues are free from the office, but spending more time on social media then you are being exposed to lots of rumors about the corona virus. This rumor mill is particularly virulent here because it’s hard to parse fact from fiction. The medical community does not trust the numbers reported by their government, presumably those originating in China. 

Pooled Info & Global Tides

I used to teach the two-step model of communications,  a cornerstone theory. Today, Slack and Email are often the preferred channel where families, neighbors, and office workers chew over the news of the day and check-in with each other. We coalesce opinions and judgement by sharing with people like us, hence  familiarity (or filter bubbles) through Facebook.

But most of us are also immersed in the larger media and swimming upstream. Twice a day, at the least, we are washed over by a tidal wave, the Infodemic. We sift through the stories for clues, like those on a public beach sorting through the tidal flotsam. 

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. As a CNBC site points out (2/22/20) only 34 people have coronavirus in the US but the common flu infected an estimated 35.5 million people here last year. As of 3/2/20 there were ~ 100 confirmed cases. The news seldom plays up these numbers, so smartphones play a big role in the transmission of rumor and fear. And the public, schooled on the media of disaster and gloom, feed on it.