This Is Why You Find Zoom Calls So Tiring

Designed by Kristine Romano.
One week into lockdown, almost to the hour, I switched on my laptop and climbed into bed for my weekly therapy session on Zoom. It was the second time I’d spoken to my therapist on webcam, so I’d already navigated the initial weirdness of telling a computer screen about my feelings while the tiny digital clock in the corner reminded me exactly how much of our hour together had elapsed. 
Every one of the seasoned freelancers I’d seen dispensing productivity advice had cautioned against working from bed. But none of them, I reasoned, had said anything about video chatting.
It was dark by the time the session ended. After clicking 'leave meeting' – and saying goodbye one too many times – I slumped into my pillow, a tautness above one eyebrow threatening a headache. Then I reached for my phone. 
I’m ready whenever you are! 
I’d forgotten that I’d arranged a Houseparty 'date' with a friend I’d normally catch up with every fortnight over a Wetherspoon’s burger. She and I would usually stay in the pub until closing time but, an hour into our chat, I was horizontal in bed, contact lenses moving a little too slowly, a pulsing pain in my temple. I hung up the call, reached for my duvet and slept for 12 hours. 
Why, when five hours in the pub would leave me fizzing with energy and encouraging friends to go on to another bar, did an hour chatting to one of my best mates finish me off?

Why, when five hours in the pub would leave me fizzing with energy, did an hour on Zoom finish me off?

When I ask Bernie Hogan, senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Internet Institute, this question, he shares an experience of his own.
"I was on a Zoom rave this weekend," he tells me. "It was fun but, also, it’s like work."
Hogan tells me that video chatting requires a mix of identity work (the effort made to manage what people in different parts of your life learn about you, e.g. from kids crashing a work meeting) and preparation to create an appropriate environment for a specific event. 
"I have to set my own lights. I have to set my own camera up. Everybody has to set their camera up. Everybody has to set some lights up," he says of the virtual rave. "Everybody has to decide, are they going to be standing up, dancing or sitting on the couch watching? Every part of this is now a personally orchestrated decision where before a lot of these decisions were made for us." 
Hogan points to the work of 20th century American psychologist Roger Barker, who founded a school of thought called ecological psychology. Its focus is the way our environment impacts how we think and behave. "The fact is, we kind of give ourselves too much credit for our own identities, when so much of them are about the context we're in," says Hogan.
As much as Wetherspoon’s decor wouldn’t impress interior Instagrammers, this makes me reflect on all the things that I factor in – but rarely give any thought to – when deciding which pub to suggest to my friend. The lighting, the view from the window, the distance between each table, the height of the ceiling, how busy you can expect it to be on any given day, how observed and how welcome the other drinkers and staff leave you feeling. 

Because we are now in an environment of reduced cues, we make more inferences. That's why solitary confinement is a form of torture.

Bernie Hogan, Oxford Internet Institute
Hogan suggests we shouldn’t underestimate the exhausting cumulative effect of constantly making decisions that were once sewn up for us. "We want to feel that we're in control of everything, when, actually, most of life is autopilot," he tells me. "That which was once autopilot now requires us to keep our hands on the wheel and pay attention. So of course that makes us tired."
This isn’t the only thing leaving us drained. Have you ever noticed that despite saying they’re 'good thanks, and you?' a friend is actually feeling down, or anxious? How would you rate your ability to perceive this via video chat? Or to judge whether someone is irritated with you?
"Because we are in an environment of reduced cues, we make more inferences. That’s why solitary confinement is a form of torture," says Hogan. "If you don't have enough information, you're going to infer that information. And if that information is wrong, your brain doesn't care."
Natalie, a 27-year-old assistant manager at a tourist attraction, is very close with her coworkers so, initially, they continued their daily team lunch via Zoom. "The first two weeks, it was pretty much every day," she tells me. "But gradually it filtered out because everybody was finding it really difficult."
Despite the fact that she and the team are used to working intense 14-hour days together, group video calls were more stilted than the usual joking and chit-chat they’d share over lunch. "Somehow, conversation doesn't flow naturally," Natalie explains. "There's a little bit of time where you speak over the top of each other because you can't see what everyone's body language is doing."  
Nowhere is this weirdness more pronounced than on a call with someone you haven’t met – something I found on my first video Hinge date. Despite the fact that the chat had been flowing well, two hours (normally the length of time I’d string out a date with someone it was difficult to make conversation with) felt like a full night drinking.
"Your brain needs information," Hogan says of virtual dates. "How big is the other person? It sounds odd but isn't it weird to be on a video date with someone and not really know if their head is small and they're short, or if their head is large and they're tall? You just have a sense of relative proportions to their body, but not to you – and so your brain has to do that extra work."
Hogan says that dating via Zoom is automatically a more intense experience, and points to the fact that 'date seating' in many restaurants is on a corner, meaning couples don’t have to sit directly opposite each other. "It's intense and accusational and, now, that's exactly how we do our Skype conversations," he tells me. 

It's very depressing being able to see someone but not actually being there. And you've got absolutely no escape from being on that call. 

charlotte, 22
The expert says that dates are made more comfortable by shared surroundings – either objects or other people that allow you to externalise the experience so there isn’t a razor focus on each other. Think guessing games about whether the couple next to you is married or on a first date.  
Hogan suggests introducing digital versions of these distractions. "Take the effort off it being solely a 'you' performance – so playing Words with Friends or other silly little games," he says. "Houseparty does a very good job of this as an app, and it's deliberate. Because they understand it can't just be about somebody always being on and performing." 
Date environments are also designed to create distractions. "They're set up to add fuel to this deliberately – a nice chandelier, or some interesting background music," he says. "Ambience wasn't just to set the mood, it was also to set a shared mood." 
Hogan wonders whether some people may start outsourcing decisions about their backdrops in future. "Will we start to see a boom in virtual interior designers who are like 'background consultants' you have a Skype conversation with to help you set up your environment?" 
The intensity of Zoom has caused 22-year-old Charlotte – who went out almost every night pre-quarantine – to swerve video calling wherever possible. "When lockdown started I was calling five or six people a day," she tells me. "Now I might speak to one a day."
"It's very depressing being able to see someone but not actually being there," she continues. "And you've got absolutely no escape from being on that call." 
Meanwhile, being able to see herself during video chats makes Natalie feel self-conscious about her appearance and mannerisms in a way she never had in real life. "I literally see my coworkers day in, day out, and I turn up to work not wearing any makeup and having had four hours sleep because we were here 'til one o'clock the previous night," she says. "It's never ever been a thing before."
She and her friends find video calling so tiring that they’ve actually discovered a novel use for it. "I video call someone I know most nights now," Natalie says. "We’re using it as a going-to-sleep routine, like a mechanism, because we know we're going to be so drained after talking to each other for an hour on video that we’ll just go straight to sleep."
Ultimately, Hogan says, the reason video conferencing is draining and exhausting is that it is "completely antithetical" to the comfortable silence you might have with people you’re truly close to. 
"We forget that, a lot of times, we should just be listening," he concludes, "and it’s so much easier to just listen offline than when a camera’s pointed at you and you're performing that listening."

More from Living

R29 Original Series