Do We Really Need a Video Call?

The Value of Voice-only in Times of Stress

By Kimberly Dark

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

During this time of social isolation, many of us have turned to video calls to resume not only our work, but our social lives, yoga and fitness classes, family connections. We may even be using video calling when we used to just make a quick phone call, or even connect online. We’re spending a lot of time sitting in front of the computer looking at other people — and looking at ourselves.

It’s time to question whether more is better when it comes to connecting across distance, and during times of duress.

After two weeks of social isolation, I participated in an online yoga class via Zoom with a teacher whose mentorship shaped my practice and my own yoga teaching. I practiced regularly in her studio and apprenticed with her as I learned to teach back in the 1990s. Decades on, we live in different states and while we have kept in touch, she doesn’t normally teach online. It’s been more than ten years since I’ve had class with her in person.

I’ve been feeling very lucky during this social isolation. I live in a beautiful natural surrounding where it’s easy to be outside and alone. I have supplies and, at the moment at least, plenty of what I need to live well. And yet, stress abounds. I worry for my son and his family, for our financial future, for my loved ones in general and for the broader citizenry of our shared earth. No more than five minutes into that online class, my teacher used the words, “It’s fine.” Something in the way she said it, in a tone I’d been comforted by in the past many times, unleashed my weeping. I wept hard, sound and video turned off on my end, for about three minutes, before rejoining the class. What a beautiful release.

It’s time to question whether more is better when it comes to connecting across distance, and during times of duress.”

This was a restorative yoga and somatic meditation class. While the class began with a few standing poses which benefitted from being able to glance at the screen, much of the class involved students being supine with eyes closed. There was no need to be visible to others in the class, though I found myself touched in the moments when we waited, before class began, to see two people in one of the little frames together reach out and briefly hold hands. I felt both longing and love.

What happened for me as a result of my teacher’s voice saying something soothing, though simple, is certainly related to our pre-existing relationship. It’s also related to breath, emotion and focus. These are the main reasons that I believe we could benefit from a judicious use of technology in our quest to remain connected and active during these difficult days of contagion and isolation.

Many of us are realizing that our thirst for news in the early days of the epidemic became a quest for understanding and an ability for planning that are simply unavailable to us right now. I’ve begun to curtail my own news and social media consumption, along with many others, after that desire for information and connection initially ballooned into something quite uncomfortable. Similarly, the explosion in Zoom and Skype usage is a great opportunity to connect, but also sometimes unnecessary. It’s not just because audio will do. Video is sometimes too much, in part because people — and women in particular — have been raised to constantly self-evaluate in a world where appearances matter.

We live in a world where bodies line up along a hierarchy of worth and appearance is used to allocate power and resources. Many people struggle with hyper-vigilance while watching themselves talk online during meetings. Part of my life’s work has been focused on researching, writing and helping others understand how deeply destructive this hierarchy of appearance and identity can be to us as individuals and to our ability to build a collective culture where people are capable of spreading peace, rather than anxiety and fear.

Even I am rattled by the amount of time I’ve spent looking at myself in the little talking box on video calls and in teaching during these past weeks. And yes, I could turn off the view of myself, but… can I? When everyone else is looking me square in the face, it’s a tricky choice. None of us is above the culture in which we were raised. Even if we have our own self-love pretty well sorted on good days, these are not the best days. Getting yourself presentable for work before leaving the house in the morning is very different than watching yourself constantly, while talking and listening. And then there’s the shifting about, in your own home, and ohmigod, what’s visible on the sofa behind me now?

Of course, video calls allow for us to focus mainly on the person speaking and that helps, but acknowledging that something significant has shifted in the way we each “consume” our own image is important too.

Women were raised with profound messages about self-objectification. All people were, but feminine socialization in particular means that we’re often managing a constant subtext in our minds about how we look to others, sound to others, seem to others. This external focus can diminish as we leave our teens and twenties, but it never fully disappears and then here we are, literally watching our own faces as we talk. It’s not just weird, it can be deeply triggering of personal and social traumas.

Of course, there is an opportunity here, to practice equanimity and self-awareness. Sometimes though, this feels akin to deciding that now is the time to write that novel or start a new exercise program. It might all be a bit much to ask of our overly vigilant nervous systems and already strained social and personal relationships.

“Video is sometimes too much, in part because people — and women in particular — have been raised to constantly self-evaluate in a world where appearances matter.”

But back to voice. If a call only involves two or three people, voice may be best because it allows us to focus on what the speaker is saying and to use our discernment to hear nuances of emotion and subtleties of meaning. Absent visual cues, we often feel a person differently, emotionally. We need to ask more follow-up questions if something seems amiss. We can’t just look, and think we know, as we are all habituated to do with screen information. And it’s harder to focus on our appearance during the call.

Then there’s the breath — which is not incidental to those who practice mindfulness. When my yoga teacher said, “It’s fine,” there was a certain quality of breath, an intonation that calmed me. I’m not suggesting that we can discern breath patterns in general conversation all the time, or that it’s even viable to try. And too, communication is an ineffable co-creation. If you’ve ever sat silently in a theatre, for instance, with someone you’re newly dating, you’ve experienced the subtlety of communication. There can be a whole symphony of information, desire and longing because of how your legs, just occasionally, are touching. It becomes clear that heightened focus due to limited information is the real deal. And you could probably notice when that person’s breath shifts too. You are definitely aware of your own.

Even those who don’t usually practice yoga or meditation are likely considering self-soothing practices these days. Taking a few deep breaths to calm down is a vital skill. It’s more important than ever, in troubling times that we all share, to cultivate the gentle witness. Being aware of our own and others’ breath and vocalizations can be vital tools.

I’m not suggesting that people should never use video calls with friends; I do it often and feel free to walk around and put down the phone while I make oatmeal, leaving my friend to stare at the ceiling if she feels the need to look at the screen. Video calls are also superior for people with specific disabilities, or to be able to visually check in with how someone is doing, if there’s reason for concern. And let’s not overuse this tool in our zeal for connection.

Let’s remember that we have other tools. Empathy, attention and discernment are important players right now. And how we practice with the breath and the body, by not overloading our own abilities, is going to be key in allowing us to use those tools.

Kimberly Dark is a writer, sociologist and raconteur working to reveal the hidden architecture of everyday life, one clever story, poem and essay at a time. Learn more at www.kimberlydark.com.

Kimberly Dark is a writer, sociologist and raconteur working to reveal the hidden architecture of everyday life, one clever story, poem and essay at a time.

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