III.2.4 The virtual mirror is not about me, it is about the others

During Covid lockdown, Zoom and other videoconferencing systems mushroomed, becoming essential tools for conducting business meetings, online teaching, and staying in touch with loved ones. However, many users felt stressed about videoconferencing, and asked to go back to phone and conference calls. Personally, I hate conference calls – in my days as a partner at PwC and Deloitte twenty years ago I spent 60% of my time being trapped in calls, the mobile phone stuck between ear and neck, and the muscles in the neck getting stiffer and stiffer as time on the call progressed. While nobody knew who else was listening in, only one person at a time could speak, with everybody else being a mostly bored eavesdropper. By the sound of the voice of the speaker, listeners had to guess who that person was and what their emotion was, which could become quite tricky, particularly if participants were numerous and speakers became agitated.  Over the last twenty years, videoconferencing partially replaced conference calls, until finally the last two Covid years brought a decisive boost to Zoom and its competitors, definitively relegating conference calls to a niche. Compared to phone calls, video conferencing calls are a much richer interaction experience, as they allow users to see each other’s face, thus opening up other communication channels to convey emotions among all participants through facial expressions. On the downside, it becomes harder to hide the pajamas that participants might be wearing and the food they are eating during the calls. And as always when something is (too) successful, videoconferencing naysayers and alarmists discover obstacles and impediments. Among a vocal minority, Zoom fatigue and videoconferencing burnout after a year of intensive video calls brought Clubhouse – a voice-only podcast and voice chat app – and a backlash against videoconferencing with the request to go back to phone and conference calls. 

I very much prefer videoconferencing over conference calls. As a traveler around the globe for the last twenty-five years, I have been a videoconferencing user of the first hour. Since 2005 I have been teaching the distributed COINs course with participants from different universities around the World, using videoconferencing tools, experimenting with Webex, Adobe Connect, Google Hangout, Zoom and many other products. While, particularly in the early days, there were many videoconferencing hiccups and glitches, there is no way I would want to go back to phone calls. In fact, it would have been impossible to teach the COINs course just using a conference call for the students to interact with each other synchronously across multiple time zones and multiple class rooms. But also for applications other than online teaching, virtual videoconferencing meetings offer a much higher interaction quality than voice-only conference calls.

I noticed that videoconferencing refusers seem to be particularly stressed by their own picture on the screen. Instead of focusing on the other participants, we become obsessed with our own appearance in the little window on the screen, fussing over our haircut, shirt, the background, and the angle of the camera. Ignoring my own image on the camera, instead trying to look the other participants in their (remote) eyes takes away this stress, just like we have no chance to constantly check our own appearance when in face-to-face meetings. This is not to say that we are not constantly aware of, if not obsessed, with our own appearance in meetings with others. This was already obvious to Louis XIV, the Sun King, when he created the Hall of Mirrors in his royal palace in Versailles. By getting his nobles to focus on their own appearance in the mirrors, he distracted them from scheming and plotting against his rule.

With virtual mirroring we have the same concern. By creating a virtual mirror of our own communication behavior, and learning about how we are seen by others, we can greatly improve communication quality and business performance. However, the ultimate goal is not for me to shine, but to focus on the emotions of my conversation partners, on the effect my communication has on them, and on making sure that they feel fully respected and happy. Yet, there is a thin line between focusing on the counterpart, and focusing on myself by making myself more attractive. There is a reason why people have a “Zoom shirt” ready to pull over their crumpled t-shirts, and obsess over haircuts and facial wrinkles. 

Research has over and over again found that attractive people are more successful. Being more attractive means forgetting about self. It’s hard to look your best on a selfie, it’s much easier to look happy and relaxed when a friend is taking your picture, particularly if you are immersed in your activity and not aware that your picture is being taken.  In our own research we asked almost two hundred university students in a survey about their advice and friendship networks at the beginning and the end of a course, and also had them rate the attractiveness of their classmates. Additionally, we asked them to rate intelligence and creativity of the other students. While we found that students who were rated more intelligent and creative grew their advice network the fastest, the students seen as the most attractive acquired the most new friends over the course of the semester.  In other  research, it was found that more attractive people are considered more able by employers, are more confident, which increases wages, have better social skills, are more likely to get elected to public office, and get called back to job interviews more often. Good looking CEOs bring better returns, attractive teachers teach better, and attractive women get better grades and have more dating success.

Psychology gives us some straightforward advice on what we can do to be more attractive. For a start, being nice makes you attractive, as does being authentic and open. Being an active listener, paying attention to others and only saying something when you have something to say is another way to increase attractiveness. Showing a positive attitude, looking your counterpart int the eyes with a friendly smile will also make you more popular. On the other hand, complaining is a recipe for chasing others away, as is being overly confident and cocky.  

Being in flow means trying to get rid of mind wandering, with the aim of “living in the moment”, even making the self disappear.  Self consists of memories. We tend to very selectively remember, trying to banish unpleasant recollections, while positive remembrances will be magnified. The goal is to be at peace with yourself, accepting the good and the bad memories of the past while living in the present. Coming back to Zoom fatigue, this means accepting how we look, not looking at our own picture in the Zoom window, but looking at the faces of the others. In this regards, Microsoft Teams is ahead of Zoom, in that it shows the picture of the owner on the camera in a small window, while the faces of the other participants are shown in much larger windows, so it will be easier to focus on them. Zoom per default shows the speaker at the top, in a large window, which unfortunately influences the speaker to focus on her or himself, and not the other participants. In this regard, Zoom still offers a virtual mirror which focusses on self, not on how self is interacting with others. In your own virtual mirror, try to focus on the others, and forget yourself!


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