Just as social distancing is changing lift etiquette, the rise in online interactions such as on Zoom have demanded new norms. How have the norms for interacting in a classroom changed when educators and students are not able to meet in person? How can rapport be created when seminars go online?
Some say that online interactions make more cognitive demands on participants. With Zoom as example, there are multiple interactions going on, verbally and through text (chat messages); and through their facial expressions, gestures as shown on the video. The virtual background is another source of meaning-making or signal-sending. At any one point in time in a Zoom session, there are several things for the mind to process in terms of decoding and understanding what is happening, what people are saying and meaning and feeling. Hence ‘zoom fatigue’. Researchers have found several reasons for this fatigue and part of this has got to do with the heightened focus on what people are saying without recourse to non-verbal cues. In the future of work, companies are starting to experiment with VR technology to create avatars that can interact by ‘moving’ and manipulating objects in a virtual meeting. Such technologies claimed to enable people to mimic in-person interaction and to speak in a “rawer” manner, without having to focus solely on verbal cues.
This hyper-consciousness often lies in the awkwardness that students feel in Zoom classrooms.
What I observed in my Zoom seminars is that students were often very quick to ‘mute’ themselves after answering a question. It seemed almost as if everyone dreaded being flagged out by the yellow box encircling the speaker on Zoom. In terms of identifying speakers, Zoom’s ‘yellow box’ is extremely helpful when videos are not switched on. However, it also calls unwanted attention to the creak of a shifting chair or a slurp of water. Therein lies the pressing need to mute one’s microphone. This also seemed to be a way to indicate that one has finished saying something.
Now, indicating that one has finished speaking is easy enough. But how do we indicate that we have something to say without *gasp* interrupting another person? When we are interacting in person, we tend to ‘know’ when someone is about to finish his/her turn and we can naturally latch on almost immediately or even overlap some of their sentences. But on Zoom, students seem mortified to speak over or interrupt another’s speech. It almost seems more difficult to know how to get hold of the conversational floor. Zoom has this ‘raise hands’ emoticon that has become less useful over time. To some, the emoticons may seem contrived. To others like myself, it is sometimes tricky to find the required button in the spontaneity of conversation.
Zoom seemed to magnify — not just in terms of the speaker’s face— but also their facial expressions and what viewers construe as visual cues. Once I was squinting at my screen when three of my students were abruptly disconnected. This happened just when student G was about to speak and he thought I was looking at him disapprovingly. The direction of one’s gaze is hard to make out at times on Zoom and student G thought I was looking at him even though I was inwardly panicking and wondering about my ‘lost’ students.
Besides magnifying the visual, Zoom magnifies the voice.
Speaking into a microphone evidently makes one conscious of one’s voice, pronunciation and intonation. My students’ quickness in muting themselves testifies to this. Interestingly, silences have also become magnified online. On Zoom, lecturers often talked about facing the ‘wall of silence’ after initiating a greeting or a question. Students, too, tend to notice silences more on Zoom.
Zoom has also changed the ways in which we begin a class. In pre-online classroom days, there were different ways for students to mark their entrance. Some may take a seat quietly with just a quiet greeting or a smile while others may attempt small talk. There is usually quiet chatter among the students as we wait for their peers to straggle in. There is the usual shifting of chairs and tables, and movement of people as they choose their favourite spots next to their friends. The chatter stops only when someone (a student or myself) stands up to close the door of the classroom or when I start addressing the whole class.
“Entering” a virtual classroom is now different.
They wait to be “admitted” by the host into the Zoom space. Because participants were muted by default, there often is a wall of silence when students enter the Zoom session. There is no shifting of seats or quiet chatter among themselves. There is no small talk. In classes where students were more accustomed to one another, some students may exchange quick greetings while others embark on a quick flurry of virtual background changes to see which they prefer. In fact, virtual backgrounds have become a source of zoom-specific humour, where some students put up tongue-in-cheek background pictures of selfies or popular movie screensavers. Oftentimes, Zoom-specific humour has come about because of technical glitches such as ‘frozen screens’ or lagging audio resulting in ‘Bionic voices’. We all remember zoom-bombing and filters run amok.
While some conversational norms have become more acceptable on Zoom, others have not. Snacking during a Zoom class seemed more acceptable online than offline but slurping down big meals -albeit muted- remains odd. Interrupting another person seems to be more unacceptable online than offline. Sideway glances, aside conversations were more common offline than online. Zoom has indeed changed the ways in which we interact in class. As with all social norms, these unspoken rules of what is acceptable or not in online interactions are socially constructed and they will evolve. What’s interesting is how we come to accept them as implicit and to follow them unquestioningly at some point.