Can We Talk?


Being cooped up in my World Headquarters (aka my home office) has made me thoroughly sick of videoconferencing, texts, and e-mails. Can we just talk? A simple phone call would solve most communication needs and have the added benefit of providing a more natural connection to the person on the other end.

While the marvel of being able to see people on our laptops is not to be diminished, Zoom is a counterintuitive big offender in dehumanizing interpersonal communication. Its overuse has usurped the more personal, flowing conversations we used to have via telephone. Now instead of discussing ideas and solving problems with a short phone call, we must first structure communication by scheduling a videoconferencing meeting. Rather than picking up the phone, we begin by exchanging calendars, then scheduling the session, and finally, going to the online meeting where most people will feel unnatural while trying to look professional in their improvised offices (my favorite is the man who meets from his wife’s sewing room surrounded by the ironing board, scissors on peg boards, sewing boxes, and fabrics). This morning I watched a presenter’s Zoom PowerPoint while listening to his kitty meowing emphatically. It was all I could do to not say, “Let’s pause so you can feed your cat.”

New research hints that job candidates interviewed on Zoom score less favorably than those who interview in person. My guess is that’s because most of us aren’t polished TV personalities and being on Zoom requires us to invest energy in worrying about whether or not we’re Zooming properly. Being a tiny head in a tiny onscreen box removes much of the informal information we gather from body language such as eye contact, nodding, and responsive conversation. Most of us aren’t good at not watching ourselves on screen, knowing how to look into the camera, or quickly finding the “unmute” button to respond to another square’s comment. Video conferencing kills natural rapport because it eliminates spontaneity. We feel uncomfortable so we simply sit in silence and stare like we’re stuffed.

The opposite problem is Zoomers who behave as if they are invisible and that no one else can see that they aren’t prepared, appropriately dressed, or actually paying attention. Last week I was on a committee Zoom when a woman wearing a “dog mommy” tee shirt very distractedly cuddled and cooed over her designer pooch while we tried to discuss a software purchase. Or how about the professional-dresser-only-from-the-waist-up who was wearing a jacket and dress shirt but who absentmindedly leaned back in his chair hoisting his hairy bare leg into the camera’s view? If we had been talking on a phone neither of these unfortunate images would now be lodged in my brain.

Texting doesn’t substitute for a phone call, either. I admit that the volume of my texting has grown tremendously thanks to Covid-19, but texting for all but the most brief messages is incredibly inefficient. Conversations that if done verbally would be complete in a few minutes, drag out over silly spans of time while each of us types the words, sends, waits for the recipient to reply, and then repeats the process. Meeting texting has increased dramatically since everyone has moved to Zoom. Bored or frustrated participants now engage in robust private text conversations with their fellow Zoomers, the 2021 equivalent of passing notes during class. Another disadvantage of texting: It’s easy to misinterpret meaning because we don’t see a facial expression or hear voice inflections to know if the sender is serious, facetious, or angry.

And then there’s e-mail. Whose inbox isn’t overflowing with threaded, long, “reply all,” messages that no one will actually read? My iPhone reminds me constantly that my various inboxes are overflowing with hundreds of messages. Who has time to read all that stuff?

This week I’m picking up the phone and calling people. Talking on the phone gives us a chance to build the informal social connections that help facilitate business by engaging in a bit of polite “chat,” and enable us to better ascertain the other person’s meanings and intentions by hearing voice inflections.  Even more important, a phone call gives us all what we need most right now—practice dusting off our mothballed social skills and a live connection to another human being.

Let’s talk.