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Home / Brunch / This Indian Life by Shoba Narayan: Reading body language on Zoom

This Indian Life by Shoba Narayan: Reading body language on Zoom

Online interactions may be effective, but minus body language and touch, they are not nimble

brunch Updated: Jun 07, 2020 14:24 IST
Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times
Clicking on the ‘raise hand’ icon makes one feel like a student whose finger the teacher had rapped and said, “Stand up on the bench”!
Clicking on the ‘raise hand’ icon makes one feel like a student whose finger the teacher had rapped and said, “Stand up on the bench”!(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)

It was a 10-year-old friend, Yuv, who taught me about the “raise hand” icon in Zoom. This, as it would turn out, was the beginning of the end of my love affair with virtual meetings. Clicking on that ridiculous ‘raise hand’ icon made me feel like a teacher had rapped me on the finger and said, “Stand up on the bench.” 

I don’t know if you are feeling Zoom fatigue but I am. Staring for hours at tiny boxed humans with tinny voices on the computer screen painfully brings to focus how contextual communication is. In other words, it is not what your colleague says. It is how, where and when he says it. As social animals, we humans are adept at reading expressions, gestures and unspoken body language. We read between the lines. We change our message based on a lifted eyebrow across the table or a yawn from our friend. Gauging feedback is hugely difficult in Zoom, particularly if your colleagues have their videos turned off under the guise of poor bandwidth. 

You know what I have discovered thanks to virtual meetings? The eyes are not the mirror of the soul. The whole body is. Think of this situation. You and your friends are sitting around a table at a restaurant. Someone at the table is ranting – about their boss, in-laws, work, wireless network. It doesn’t matter. You open your mouth to offer a solution. The friend sitting next to you lightly touches your arm. You close your mouth. You shut up. Your friend has effectively communicated feedback with just a light touch on the arm. She has told you, “Stay quiet. Let her rant. She is just getting stuff out. Be a supportive friend. Shut up and listen.” How do you do this online when you cannot even see the hand, let alone raise it or touch someone?

Clicking on the ‘raise hand’ icon makes one feel like a student whose finger the teacher had rapped and said, “Stand up on the bench”!

Now, the entire world is touch-hungry – and this is affecting some people more than others. Are you a hugger? One of those Munnabhai “jadoo ki jhappi” types? Because I am. I actually hug loved ones for 15 seconds or more because that is how long it takes for the oxytocin (good hormones) to flow. How do you do that in this new world? Although most of us spend countless hours online, I think we also have intuited that the virtual world is a poor substitute for the real one. Holding hands, smelling the roses, touching a child’s cheek, hugging a friend, sharing a beer or wine – all these require physical presence.

Some companies are talking about working virtually on an indefinite basis. Yes, there are many things that can be done from home. But if your job involves brainstorming, ideating, negotiating, mediating and building consensus, virtual meetings fail on most counts. If you are a people person, the virtual world is a poor substitute.

We meet for four reasons: to connect, to talk, to get feedback and to absorb context. Virtual meetings allow us to connect, but they are spotty with allocating whose turn it is to talk. In Zoom, every gesture needs to be thought out or staged rather than spontaneous. You cannot simply raise your eyebrows and stop a colleague from rambling. You have to click the “raise hand” button.

In real life, interrupting colleagues in a meeting is an art. It is a way for junior colleagues to make their voices heard, and for seniors to exert authority. It is a way to put people in their place with the “one second, one second, let me finish.” It is a way of balancing politeness and assertiveness. How to do all this virtually?

The most difficult part of virtual meetings is that they are stripped of context. If you are the boss, the mere act of looking away or out of the window can cause a rambling employee to speed up his or her presentation. In Zoom, where are you going to look? People will think you are distracted by your cat or kid. It looks unprofessional. So we force ourselves to focus on audio and visual cues because that is really all we have to go by. And then you realise how much gestures and body language add to the whole process.

So what next? Go hug a friend, won’t you? Take a walk with your mom. Just like that. The joy of physical interaction is its flexibility. Online interactions may be more effective but are less nimble. We simply don’t have enough cues to steer the conversation in any direction except what is prescribed or written on the agenda.

Life on the other hand is full of detours. And this strange time may be as good a time for taking those detours.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, June 7, 2020

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