Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Right now we are each tasked with a unique and difficult task: to take care of our mental health while being unable to spend time, in person, with many of the most important people in our lives. Without in-person time, we have to resort to talking over Zoom or FaceTime, which cannot fully replace the quality of spending time with someone face-to-face.
In the song “Waving Through A Window” from the award-winning Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen, the protagonist Evan sings about his social anxiety and loneliness, using the metaphor of looking through a window to relate how he feels separate from friends and society:
On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I've always been?
'Cause I'm tap, tap, tapping on the glass
I'm waving through a window
In more ways than one, we are all behind the window right now. We each are feeling a bit on the outside, a bit more disconnected and farther away from the people in our lives.
Digital Connection is… hard and strange and weird....
The felt sense of connecting with another person through a digital medium is a psychologically different experience than being in their physical presence. There's no escaping or circumventing that.
Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri, from the university INSEAD in France who studies humans and workplaces, notes that video chats are difficult because "our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting.” To return to the window metaphor, our bodies are rooted in the inside of the building looking out the window and behind the Zoom screen, while our minds are teleporting. Our minds gaze out the window and into the digital space where the people we are talking to are located.
This teleportation that we do is only partial, though, because let’s face it: our minds are often only partially paying attention to the Zoom and to this digital space. Our dog begins whining to be let out. We check our phones. We adjust our posture because we are uncomfortable. We start thinking about what we’re going to make for dinner or watch on Netflix later. Something actually floats by in the window. Or, sometimes we’re gazing out into the digital space, but we begin looking elsewhere out the window (other websites, other apps, etc.) This partial teleportation is partially a consequence of the way that our minds (our cognition) is intertwined with our bodies; while we may be paying attention to our friends and this digital space, our bodies still know that we are not with them. That’s where the dissonance comes in.
Another important feature of our window-gazing-Zoom-cognition at play that’s strange and sometimes overlooked: amplified self-monitoring. Almost all platforms allow us to see ourselves on camera, and so we naturally devote a small (or sometimes large) portion of our attention to how we look. We feel as if we are performing, and we are constantly monitoring how we look. This is unnatural. (Can you imagine, for example, if there was a mirror in front of you when you were hanging out with your friends, in class, or a meeting? That would be strange. But that's our current reality) One tip that I've employed is to "Hide Self View" on Zoom (most other platforms have a similar feature), so that I'm unable to see myself and can only view my friends or colleagues.
Large group calls, even with a bunch of your closest friends, can also feel off because you don't get to speak very often, you don't get the benefit of eye contact and body language. You may feel diminished or unheard. You’re gazing out the window and you want to speak but you don't think anyone will care to listen.
Poor connection is a further complication because researchers have found that transmission delay leads to individuals viewing each other as less attentive and less conscientious. Even if we know intellectually that it's not our friend's fault that there's a bad connection, we feel as if they are paying less attention to us and we feel misunderstood. It’s as if our windows are made of thick, partially-sound-proof glass that inhibits authentic conversation.
Separate but Shared Windows
It's easy to lose sight of the fact that we are not the only ones behind the window. Speaking from my own experience, there are periods I will go through where I feel as if I am the only person experiencing X. I am the only one who has to do Y. I am the only person who is facing Z. This is sometimes what our minds do to us - we are the victims, woe-is-me, etc, and this psychological tendency has been further amplified by the dynamics of quarantine and isolation.
But, of course, we are all behind windows right now!
When we fully internalize this -- that everyone we know is experiencing similar feelings of disconnection -- then we can zoom out (pun intended) from our own situation and feel a bit better about what's going. There's well-documented research that the experience of shared pain serves as a kind of "social glue" that increases cooperation, builds solidarity, and reduces our own suffering. When we remind ourselves that we are all going through this, we remember that we are not alone. We may be looking through the window, yes; but everyone is looking through their own window right now, each with a bit of a different color pane and a different size window, but a window nonetheless!
Dealing with Fear
In the first lines of the song, Evan sings about his fear of failure and his social anxiety:
I've learned to slam on the brake
Before I even turn the key
Before I make the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me
Give them no reason to stare
No slippin' up if you slip away
So I got nothing to share
No, I got nothing to say
These lines tear at me. Evan's fear of being viewed a certain way causes him to stay silent. His silence precipitates a vicious cycle: he doesn't speak out, he experiences disconnection and loneliness because he does not speak, and then he feels farther away from people, making him less likely to speak in the future.
Everyone has something to say, and every voice matters.
During this pandemic, we each may be feeling a little bit muted, a little bit like our voice matters less or a little bit scared to speak. Even a group call with our closest friends involves less speaking because of the dynamics of digital group conversation: only one person can really speak at a time, it’s harder to have side-chats, etc.
If you do find yourself holding back or not speaking on a Zoom call, try to notice that. If you can recognize these feelings, then you may be able to talk to another friend about them after the call, speak to a family member in-person, or journal about them.
**Tips & Tools**
I want to close with a few resources & tips that we have found helpful during Quarantine.
Use tools to self-monitor: Google has curated a list of "ideas and tools that help people find a better balance with technology." You can check them out here.
Reframe: Remind yourself that the “talking heads” on your screen are not just talking heads - they are real people! It sounds silly, but we sometimes forget. Making a conscious effort to take a second and remind yourself of this can make the Zoom experience more human and relational.
Take breaks throughout the day: Be conscious of your digital diet. I know, I know - I sound like your parent or your teacher, right? But, there's an important lesson to be learned during this pandemic around device usage and information diet. Experiment on yourself: How does it make me feel to take a break for a little while?
Avoid multi-tasking: do your best to reduce on-screen stimuli and avoid multi-tasking while you’re on a call. Tik-Tok can wait until after the call. (I promise)
Hide self-view: as mentioned above, hiding self-view can make the Zoom experience seem a bit more natural.