Meet Your Zoom Alter Ego: Accepting Your Virtual Personality

Understanding how and why you behave differently on videoconference.

Posted May 17, 2020

Courtesy of Anna Shvets on Pexels
Source: Courtesy of Anna Shvets on Pexels

During the first week of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders mid-March 2020, everyone was focused on staying healthy, following local quarantine guidelines, and adjusting to the unprecedented, sudden change of lifestyle. Companies and businesses whose employees were able to work remotely scrambled to create new protocols designed to keep everyone productive and connected as they sheltered in place. For many teleworkers, this meant meeting via Zoom.

Once the Zoom meetings started, so did their frequency. First once a week, increasing in some companies to once a day for employees to “check in” with the team. Even employees who were already using Zoom for business meetings found themselves spending much more time in front of their cameras than they could have anticipated, and that they would have liked. And it showed—literally, on the screen.

Sitting stiffly in uncomfortable chairs, staring at computer cameras with a forced smile for hours on end—during the workday, then into happy hour and beyond, began to take its toll. People began to look as exhausted as they felt. And their comments and conversation changed as well, sometimes mirroring their discomfort. Even in a social setting, forced, sustained, screen time is draining and unnatural even for the most outgoing among us. This is true even though we are interacting from the comfort of home, and comfortably clothed (yes, pajamas qualify as clothing).

Adapting to these changes impacts the way we present ourselves, including our attention, demeanor, and methods of communication. This is especially true for people who are most comfortable communicating in person, many of whom have not warmed up to the idea of being reduced to a square on a Zoom grid. And regarding virtual manners (or sometimes lack thereof), many people struggle to transfer offline skills to an online, unnatural setting. Interestingly, there are some easy-to-understand explanations for why we feel and behave the way we do on virtual platforms.

Sensory Satiation 

Apparently, we are worn out by marathon Zoom-a-thons for good reasons. As Dr. Steven Hickman explains in an article in Mindful,[i] online attention is of a different quality, one that renders us “hyper-focused on the few available visual cues that we normally gather from a full range of available body language.” 

And Zoom events are not necessarily a case of the more the merrier. Hickman notes that with multiple Zoom participants, we are processing visual cues from everyone at the same time—as well as other people and pets in their home, in a fashion we would never do in a conference room. Hickman aptly describes a Zoom meeting as “a stimulus-rich environment, but just like rich desserts, sometimes too rich is just too much.” He leaves us with the suggestion that we “be present to absence, without becoming absent to presence.”

Focus as Fixation

Another difficult transition involves sustained focus. An interesting article in The Conversation explains how our Zoom persona is different from what we project in person.[ii] It points out that on screen, we feel obliged to expend more emotional effort in order to appear interested, and without the type of non-verbal cues present offline, “the intense focus” on words, as well as sustained eye contact (our best attempt to “look” at the speaker), can be exhausting. We know to stare at the camera, not the screen, but would we ever stare down a presenter like that offline? Or someone who is "talking" during a Zoom happy hour? Awkward online social rules may prompt unnatural responses.

Following the Virtual Crowd

Zoom is also a platform where we may lose the ability and incentive to express individual personality traits, and unwittingly model the behavior of other users. If it appears that most people on the Zoom grid are attentive and listening, you probably will too. If on the other hand, most attendees have turned off their video or joined without video to begin with, you are less likely to reveal yourself either. Such impersonal presence prevents building rapport, decreases the cohesiveness of the call, and might even negatively impact your impression of the speaker.

No Water Cooler Conversation

The Conversation piece also notes that in a virtual work environment, there are no “water-cooler catch-ups,” which in person, afford the opportunity not just for small talk, but also for pre-meeting discussions of issues and viewpoints. Progressing through our day sitting in a chair switching from one Zoom meeting to the next eliminates the chance for social interaction as well as physical movement—which the piece notes can be energizing in itself.

Without the natural energy boost of physically leaving our workspace to head to the conference room for a meeting, the lunchroom for a break, or the office of a colleague to talk shop, we lose much of the liveliness and engagement of an offline workplace.

Because Zoom and similar virtual platforms are likely here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, it is worthwhile to strategize ways to balance convenience with cohesiveness, creating connection through a sense of community. The use of icebreakers, introductions, and other methods of encouraging engagement can create virtual meetings that are both interactive and productive.  As we become more comfortable with virtual platforms, more of our personality will no doubt shine through, as we are able to replace a sense of awkwardness with acceptance.