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Playing Virtual Favorites: Social Disrespect on Zoom

Research reveals how social rules apply online.

Image by gnanasathees suntharam from Pixabay
Source: Image by gnanasathees suntharam from Pixabay

At the beginning of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, people were posting PJ selfies, sharing “quarantini” cocktail recipes, and making videos of simulated plane flights using their washing machine door as the window. Marketers in the entertainment industry catered to the temporary new normal by offering free content, while clothing manufacturers advertised draw-string/elastic waistband professional home-office wear, affording employees a comfortable way to work while #SafeAtHome.

Then the Zoom meetings started. First once a week, then, for many teleworkers, once a day. Not everyone was thrilled with the new requirement to join a grid of talking heads on a regular basis, sitting uncomfortably at attention for sometimes hours on end. But even worse than the physical discomfort for many, was the emotional discomfort, depending on the interpersonal dynamics of the meeting. Sure enough, research shows that interaction within virtual platforms can produce the same types of social slights that occur in person.

Social Ostracism Online

Zoom is a place where emotionally vulnerable can feel insulted and slighted. Although too recent to have produced a rich field of psychological study, the dynamics of Zoom meetings bear similarity in some respects to chat room dynamics—which has been the subject of prior research.

Ana Paula Gonçalves Donate et al. (2017) examined the adverse effects of social ostracism in a virtual chat room in a study involving controlled social dialogue between participants and confederates. [i] They defined ostracism as being characterized by “a social pain provoked by being excluded and ignored.” Their study examined its effects on the emotional experience, expression of basic social needs, and feelings of pain.

In their experiment, they manipulated exclusion by limiting the number of messages a participant received, setting exclusion to 15%, inclusion to 33%. Compared with participants who were included, they found that exclusion prompted a lower experience of basic-need states and increased anger. Excluded participants also reported an increase in two specific self-pain feelings: tortured and hurt.

Consider what such results might mean for Zoom participants during a forum where messages are delivered in different quantities in the chatbox, for example. Where Zoom hosts are going to make sure of such features, whether they are educators teaching a class, or employers facilitating a team meeting, they might consider how to even the playing field in terms of messaging. Some meeting coordinators decide to disable the chat feature altogether when presenting a virtual speaker or webinar as opposed to a meeting, or they restrict communication to messaging with the host or speaker. But most Zoom meetings involve interaction, which might render some participants vulnerable to feeling socially excluded.

Online Face Needs

Other research has examined the impact of fact threats in online interaction. Benjamin Brummernhenrich and Regina Jucks in a piece entitled “‘He Shouldn’t Have Put It That Way!’ (2016)[ii] examined how face threats and strategies of mitigation impact personal perception during online tutoring.

They begin by noting that by their nature, instructional strategies and techniques including different types of feedback and requests for clarification contradict socially shared desires of autonomy and appreciation, meaning they threaten the face of the individual receiving the feedback. In their study, they had 123 participants read an online interaction between a tutor and a tutee where the tutor's politeness was varied and contained different types of face threats. The face threats themselves were expressed without redress or mitigated with politeness.

Study results demonstrated the value of tutors’ mitigation when delivering instructional face threats. The authors note the importance of this finding considering the reality that a tutor’s job by definition, at least to some extent, includes what the authors recognize as “legitimate face threats.” They further note the impact on person perception.

This research might be relevant for educators, employers, or other individuals hosting Zoom events that include group discussion. Apparently, being reduced to squares on a screen visually does not eliminate the potential negative emotional impact of blunt criticism or reproach.

Virtual Awareness of Personal Affect

Considering social and face needs online is an important component of productive virtual meetings. Understanding how interpersonal dynamics work on a virtual platform can assist employers and educators who are spending more time interacting in this format, to craft new practices and procedures, whether interacting in a group or one-on-one. In contrast to the perception of unaccountability some experience when communicating from a physical distance, apparently the emotional impact of social dynamics remains up close and personal.


[i] Donate, Ana Paula Gonçalves, Lucas Murrins Marques, Olivia Morgan Lapenta, Manish Kumar Asthana, David Amodio, and Paulo Sérgio Boggio. “Ostracism via Virtual Chat Room—Effects on Basic Needs, Anger and Pain.” PLoS ONE 12, no. 9 (September 6, 2017).….

[ii] Brummernhenrich, Benjamin, and Regina Jucks. 2016. “‘He Shouldn’t Have Put It That Way!’ How Face Threats and Mitigation Strategies Affect Person Perception in Online Tutoring.” Communication Education 65 (3): 290–306. doi:10.1080/03634523.2015.1070957.