Posted by: dacalu | 27 March 2020

Nonverbal Community

I have a confession to make; I find Zoom meetings very stressful. I’m part of numerous communities, all of which have switched to teleconferences for the sake of social distancing: several church groups as well as martial arts and academia. I’m deeply grateful for the support and the technology. I can’t imagine what quarantine was like before the age of social media. And, yet I find it difficult to find enthusiasm or even a strong will to attend.

At first, I thought this was simply discomfort with changing my routine, but I’ve been using Zoom for a while and it works very well. (I’m also happy with Skype and Google tools.) I’m comfortable with the technology. Next, I thought it might be grief over losing out on part of my friendships. Sure, I could talk to people, but I wanted more. Both explanations seemed true in part, but neither quite captured my distress.

I think it has something to do with introversion. I love talking with people, but talking tires me out. Being with people recharges me. It sounds strange, I know, but when I am truly out of sorts, nothing cheers me more not talking with people I know. This is, I suspect, common among introverts: a desire to be with other people, especially when you know them well enough to be silent.

Teleconferences take all the difficult parts of meeting and put them up front. I’m okay with crowds (mostly) because I have learned to read the mood of the room. People share emotions. But on Zoom, each person has their own box. I feel a need to constantly move between images, not to mention looking at the text as people chat on the side. Add to that regular checks to see that I’m positioned right for my own camera, that my mic is on (or off), and the other distractions of a computer screen. It can be overwhelming.

At the same time, I don’t get the non-verbal communication and reinforcement I find comforting. I can’t align my posture and breathing with others. I can’t settle into the rhythm of being together. I’ve never been much for handshakes and hugs, but proximity matters to me. Above all, I can’t relax into that sense of silent belonging. For me, virtual meetings have most of the costs and few of the benefits of physical gatherings.

And so, I have replaced something very important in my life, something that feeds me (physical gathering) with something that drains me (teleconferences). I’m not proud of this. I love community and know how hard my friends work to create virtual meetings. I want to support them, and I want to get better at being a virtual member. And, I know that will be hard for me.

Teleconferencing preserves one aspect of community but, for me, it is not the core. Nor is it simply a narrower version of the same thing. It is an entirely different way of interacting. Social distancing is important right now; I do not want more in-person interactions. Virtual meetings are among the best tools for communicating while we are apart. Still, I will be sad if they become the cornerstone of community life. They change group dynamics in important and, for me, negative ways.

In future posts, I’ll explore possibilities for maintaining the non-verbal aspects of community and reflect on how they might tie in with virtual meetings. I’m thinking about physical rituals, dedicated spaces, temporal rhythms, personal participation, and small group interaction. And, I’d like to hear suggestions. But first I wanted to share my reflections and see if others feel the same way I do.

Social distancing will be with us for a long time. The current intensity of “shelter in place” may, if we are lucky, last for only three months, but societal caution is likely to last far longer. The wait for a vaccine and reliable testing could easily reach 18 months. If we talk and plan now, we can be better prepared for life during the worst of the pandemic, and better prepared for the new world after. For good and ill, coronavirus is reshaping our ideas about what it means to live together. I’d like to be intentional about that.

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