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Why you can’t believe all the visual cues you get on video chats

Video calls are not the real thing, and this has clear implications for our ability to show and hide our emotions online, whether they are real or fake.

Why you can’t believe all the visual cues you get on video chats
[Photo: Flickr user Steve Snodgrass]

The majority of work and even personal meetings are now happening through video apps. As the boundaries between our work and personal lives get more blurred, it’s useful to understand how we display and convey emotions online, and whether we are able to decode and interpret other people’s emotions effectively when we see them on a computer or cellphone screen instead of right in front of us.

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On one hand, videos will capture and convey many of your emotions, and the same rules of nonverbal communication that govern our physical interactions will transfer to the virtual world of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, etc. This is the reason we’re able to empathize with movie actors and feel what they are “feeling,” or rather faking when we see them on the big screen. For instance, Tom Hanks wasn’t really upset when he visited Jenny’s grave in Forrest Gump, which probably helped him win an Oscar.

This is also why we love using video for our virtual conversations in the first place, especially since quarantines were implemented. You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that when we use video and can see the other person, or even a partial digital version of them, we appear to miss out less from the real thing that we (still) get from physical interactions.

On the other hand, it’s also quite clear that video calls still feel unnatural and artificial. They are not the real thing, and this has clear implications for our ability to show and hide our emotions online, whether they are real or fake.

Visual noise

There is a certain amount of interference you can expect in a virtual chat. When you are put in an unnatural situation, perhaps worried about whether the technology will function, and looking at yourself on a screen, even a clever observer of human emotions will be faced with a great deal of noise or communicational interference. We can all expect to look a lot clumsier, more awkward, and anxious than we would in the physical world.

Difficulty reading cues

The second, which follows from the first, is that those watching you will also experience deficits in their ability to read your emotions, so even if you feel in control of the situation, you cannot assume your emotional content, or indeed any part of your message, will be effectively communicated. For starters, Zoom callers appear to devote significantly more time looking at themselves rather than other callers. This is hardly surprising as most people are narcissistic.

Emotional interference

A great deal of your emotional content will actually interfere with your message rather than reinforce it. Yes, we pay attention to people’s body language, but it is very often a distraction. This is why people are generally more easily deceived when they watch someone say something, than when they just hear their message without seeing them on video.

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Unconscious bias

There is a thin line between the things we want to pay attention to and those we should. Yes, it may feel real, human, and even good to see the person you are talking to, but in many instances–especially if you are just meeting the person for the first time –it’s just an invitation to project your biases. Demographic factors, social class, and attractiveness will determine whether you “click” with them or feel there is a chemistry.

Easy fake

With the right focus, preparation, and awareness, you will be more able to fake your emotions, because your audience will be more distracted and more self-centered. Before you pretend that the notion of fake emotions is immoral or illegal (which it isn’t), think about whether you always tell people exactly how you feel, and behave in an unfiltered, uninhibited, and uncensored way at work, or whether you make an effort to be kind and caring, polite, enthusiastic, supportive, empathetic, even when you are grumpy and irritable.

The difference between these two is the difference between a bad and good colleague (or leader), respectively. One fascinating paradox is that it takes a lot of practice and skilled impression management to seem honest online. So, authenticity may not just be different from spontaneity, but also the opposite of it.

So, can you show, hide, and fake your emotions on Zoom? Yes, and you will get better with practice, though things like social skills or emotional intelligence determine how much potential you have for this.

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